“We just need a moment of silence this Black History Month.”
My sister recently texted me this after a conversation about cheap Amazon hair care finds and before a play-by-play of Lori Harvey’s latest vacation. I’m not sure when Black History Month morphed from a celebration to a memorial, but as the calendar flipped to February, my sister and I (and many other Black folks, I’ve since confirmed) shared the same anxiety-tinged enthusiasm. Instead of being excited for a month intended to uplift our stories, leaders, and culture, we found ourselves sitting with an apprehension for the days to come. Though being Black has always been my reality — one that I celebrate every single day — in February, this February, there seems to be a particular pressure to be BLACK.
It’s an odd thing to be told to celebrate on cue, and for just 28 days. We’re meant to put on our Easter Sunday best and clap for a procession of historical Black figures, to yell about our struggles, to push forward despite our exhaustion and anger in order to take advantage of the one time a year the rest of the nation is paying attention. If this is reminding you of the frenetic energy of last summer, you’re not alone. Here at Unbothered, my colleagues and I have talked on the Go Off Sis podcast about feeling like Black people have to fast forward through our trauma, so that we can stand up and shout our pain when people are finally listening. The ineffable anxiety of trying to explain our personhood is something we are all too familiar with and a burden we’re all learning how to set down after an unrelenting year.
These feelings are old, itchy and frankly, all too familiar. The highlight reel of our history could be played in reverse and we’d still recognize its sting.
I have a tense relationship with Black History Month, and that’s because, for much of my life, I felt like it was forced on us rather than being for us. It’s exhausting to be made aware of what Black people don’t have and were never meant to have in this country. And growing up as one of the only Black girls in my predominantly white high school and later at Yale, it seemed transgressive, or even a betrayal of my community, to reject Black History Month. But, more than anything, the month rang false, felt tiresome, and was just not enough. I felt like a spectator in my own story as Black History Month was treated by my peers like a chapter in a 300-page textbook that gets forgotten as soon as the final exam is over. It felt like when you get in trouble at school and your parents are called to the principal’s office, while you sit waiting on the other side of the door — nervous to be called on, ready to defend yourself, and just wishing it was all over so you could go back to lying on the couch and watching Moesha.
These feelings are old, itchy and frankly, all too familiar. The highlight reel of our history could be played in reverse and we’d still recognize its sting. For Black people, 2020 was maddeningly and infuriatingly much of the same. In the midst of a global pandemic, our businesses were closing, our families were ravaged by a virus that was compounded by our lack of access to healthcare, and our community was hurting. Then, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other names of Black people who were taken too soon dominated our timelines. The year felt like a soul-crushing re-opening of wounds we’ve never healed from. Yes, we now have VP Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to serve in this position, but if anything, this month should serve as a teachable moment for us to acknowledge the complicated history of being the first Black anything, and the perils of hanging a nation’s hopes on one magical Black woman, even if she is absolutely brilliant.
Black History Month 2021 has the curiously heavy responsibility of setting an example in this new reality, while also reminding us that our own realities haven’t really changed. Maternal mortality is still three times higher for Black women than it is for white women. Black people are still up to ten times more likely to be arrested for minor crimes like marijuana possession. A young Black boy can’t ride an elevator or hold his iPhone without being violated.
At Unbothered, we tell these stories and challenge their truths, because we must. But, the book doesn’t end there. Our goal is to make every Black girl feel like royalty today, not tomorrow, not 50 years from now. And this Black History Month, we’re writing our history now as the victors, not the victims.
This Black History Month, we’re giving wings to our roots and weaving together a new tapestry. We’re unlearning trauma’s chokehold on our narrative.
Over and over, it was Black people — Black women in particular— who moved the wheel of history in real time. It was brilliant Black women whose joy, perseverance, and determination to be seen couldn’t be contained. Women like Stacey Abrams, Amanda Gorman, Aurora James, Megan Thee Stallion, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Rosalind Brewer, and more whose spirits moved us to action. To vote. To buy Black. To believe. To lead. To heal.
So do the Black women we know and cheer for, hype up on Instagram, and tweet about daily. Because, quite simply, we are them.
Instead of learning about ourselves through the removed lens of the Black history thrust upon us, let’s commit to meeting, challenging, and unlearning our past this month. Let’s recognize that we can celebrate our progress while still remaining resolute in our cry for personhood. Let’s share our stories, not as heroes, but as humans, as whole.
This Black History Month, we’re giving wings to our roots and weaving together a new tapestry. We’re unlearning trauma’s chokehold on our narrative, and the idea that Black History Month can’t be for us, for me, for my sister, or for you. Unlearning also means re-educating ourselves on the things our history books didn’t teach us: the brilliance of enclaves like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the unburdened joy of Black roller skate culture, the New Black Renaissance of culture happening right before our eyes, and the complicated history of hearing Black melodies and seeing our dances on mainstream white stages. We’re going to delve into all of that this month.
This Black History Month, we’re celebrating, not because a calendar is telling us to, but because our community compels us to. And if that means ignoring the entire thing and just doing us, so be it. Because if nothing else this month, we’re going to be our Blackest selves — just like we are every day.
R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, beauty, and contributions to the culture. In 2021, we’re giving wings to our roots, learning and unlearning our stories, and celebrating where Black past, present and future meet.
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