Today marks the official start to another twenty-eight-day cycle where the media, public schools, and a considerable chunk of the U.S. population will reach into their Black History Month chest, dust off a few totems, and go through the motions of paying tribute to familiar Black figures and their historical achievements.
Carter G. Woodson’s ambitions for Negro History Week far surpassed the design and limitations of what has evolved into the annual custom now recognized as Black History Month. But more than that, the scope of the discussions that accompany this commemoration provides an incomplete model of what history means.
To conceptualize history as some distant thing detached from existing and future life circumstances or the systems and cultural norms that shape the status quo is a critical error. Past isn’t just prologue—past remains saddled to the present. This is something James Baldwin noted in his incisive piece “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes”:
“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
At some point we must advance from fleeting acknowledgements of mythologized Black figures to honoring revolutionary Black legacies through action. After all, highly esteemed abolitionist Sojourner Truth attempted to secure land reparations for those formerly enslaved, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to secure the “bad check” this nation owes Black America.
Year after year we are provided with repetitious tributes typically limited to rhetoric or transient gestures. But what if this commitment to valuing Black history translated into valuing Black futures by supporting the changes necessary for full freedom?
It’s difficult to imagine how incredibly transformed the Black American experience would be if this nation were invested in realizing Black liberation as much as it’s invested in celebrating the “potential” of Black liberation filtered through whitewashed symbolism and carefully curated narratives.
I asked humanist educator, author, and feminist activist Sikivu Hutchinson what a world free of Black disenfranchisement would look like for Black girls and women. “A Black humanist future would involve creating the infrastructure to fully support radical spaces for African-American girls and girls of color to grow, thrive, and lead against the tide of white supremacist, sexist, ableist, heterosexist invisibility and dehumanization,” she wrote.
A future vision means building school and community spaces where cis, straight, queer, trans and gender non-conforming African-American girls and women can learn about their collective social history of struggle, creativity, and self-determination.
It means eradicating sexual violence, harassment, and theocratic assaults on the reproductive rights of Black women and girls. It demands the establishment of public policies and institutions that redress the criminalization and hyper-sexualization of Black women’s bodies and provide liberatory alternatives to moral policing and carceral control.
Alix Jules, atheist-humanist writer and activist, imagines this regarding what Black futures would mean in a society free of anti-black racism and its multi-dimensional impact on everyday life:
If I could dream this fantastical dream, I would paint a world where I could play with my children without being told how wonderful it was to see me take such an interest in their lives. I wouldn’t care how messy we got with ice cream, because we “represented the only interaction some whites would ever have with our kind.”
Being free of anti-blackness would mean being able to speak without compliments stating that I’m “articulate” and being able to feel and show anger without invoking fear fueled by stereotypes. I would be able to fall asleep without wondering if my son gets home tonight without being harassed by police.
Maybe my musings are still too grounded in the world where incremental change is all I can see. Perhaps I’m hindered by defeated pragmatism, where a dream is constantly deferred and dreamers laid to rest.
Perhaps my children can dream better dreams, where their memories of me are as a father and no longer as a fighter.
It isn’t possible to genuinely celebrate past Black achievements without also working towards a future in which the emergence of Black excellence is no longer beset by anti-black social, political, economic, and cultural systems.
The Black struggle for justice was not solved with the end of chattel slavery, with the passage of civil rights legislation, or by the presidency of Barack Obama. Blackness is still pathologized and the Black experience remains harrowing in more ways than language can describe. Black communities are ravaged by racism dispensed through redlining, educational apartheid, gentrification, healthcare discrimination, mass incarceration, the “war on drugs,” restricted access to the mainstream economy—the list is endless.
It is important to remember the rich and diverse stories of Black achievements, but we must also remember that the goal of all those Black leaders and Black activists has not been met—at least not entirely. The aim of their activism was freedom. Nobody being terrorized is satisfied with a partial deliverance from that terror. Being halfway free won’t make Black communities whole.
And wholeness is the aim of social justice: to pursue and secure freedom from the web of oppressive systems present within a society that maintains injustice. That’s what we need. Anything less isn’t good enough.