Knowing Your Black History

This was published in the paper early in February. I hope you will take time on this last day of the month to remember that Black History  is our history, and it should matter to each of us every day of the year.

“Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”― Martin Luther King Jr.

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It’s February. It’s the shortest month of the year and packs a punch. No, not because it’s the month of love (though that does pack a punch, since those who are single often find it painful, and those who are attached often find it full of pressure to do all the right things), but because it is that month when we take time to pay attention to Black History. Because I’ve grown up a lot in fifty some years, and because I’ve made being anti-racist a priority for myself, I know that King’s words are painfully true on either side of the equation — those with privilege have a difficult time giving it up, and those wishing they could enjoy it find it difficult not to possess.

And so, I’ll begin with an admission. For many years, I didn’t really understand. Why would Black History need its own month? Does no one talk about it the other eleven months? Miss America was a Black woman one year, yet we still had the Black Miss America Pageant. Were Black people more special? Raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, in a predominantly white church, and in a predominantly white elementary school, I just thought there weren’t many Black people in the world. I look back and realize how little exposure any of us had until probably high school to the fact that there were actually more than a handful of Black people in our town. I am guessing many of you experienced the same, unless you are a Black person who felt you must be invisible in your town.

I’ve learned through my self-education the past several years that no one in the Black community really wants my admissions of shame or sorrow. They want more from me. They want changed actions. And so, I’ve been working to educate myself so I understand the change that is needed, wanted, and should be demanded. And this leads me to my topic of Black History Month. You can go to any number of websites to find the history of particular individuals, and while I recommend your doing just that, I want to offer more to you and to myself.

Thinking back to the Black history in my own life, I found myself thinking of two girls and two adults. The girls were Jan and Debbie. They were the only two Black girls in my class in elementary school. I don’t remember ever thinking much about our differences, just that I knew they looked different than I did. Jan was very quiet, and Debbie was very funny. Debbie and I ended up playing basketball together in middle school. The adults were Mrs. Kinslow and Mrs. Welton. Mrs. Kinslow was my third grade teacher. I talked a lot, so that probably didn’t help my standing with her, but I remember her as a kind and quiet woman. Lastly, Mrs. Welton. She was the only Black woman in our church, and I believe she was there because she was so fond of our minister who was so instrumental in desegregation. And that’s it, until I was in middle school and high school. But never was there much discussion or education about how different our lives were.

What about your Black history? Maybe you had a childhood similar to mine or maybe it was much different. Perhaps you’ve offered applause to the African Americans who have received a nod during February, but have wondered why we had special events specifically for Black people. Today is a great day to learn why it’s been important and why we should come to a place where Black History is an ongoing celebration. You see, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, our privilege isn’t always easy to give up voluntarily, but when we make an attempt to see things from this other point of view, we replace privilege with partnership.

As I have spent a few weeks trying to come up with what I wanted to say about Black History Month, I decided I wanted to know about the history of Black people more than I wanted to know about a few Black people. I’ve found a few podcasts that have been incredibly educational, and I have let myself experience some of the findings from scientists/archaeologist throughout the past several years.

Namely, whether you ascribe to the Out of Africa (also called Noah’s Ark) model or the Multiregional model, life most likely began in Africa a couple of hundred thousand years ago for humans. Maybe it shows up in our dna and maybe it doesn’t, but reading those studies, and listening to the stories of the findings of bones in digs are quick reminders of how connected we all are.

If you’ve never watched “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, you should look it up. Gates was as surprised at his own heritage as most of his guests are. People are usually surprised to find they have a slaveowner and/or slaves in their history — Black guests, as well as white guests. We seem to be much more closely connected than we sometimes think.

I’ve thought a lot about Mrs. Kinslow and how difficult it must have been to be one of a handful of Black people in our school, Mrs. Welton, sitting in one of the back pews where we sat, choosing to worship where she did because of a minister’s kindness, and Debbie and Jan, who I just knew were my friends, but who I’ve never reached out to since childhood. I did talk to the sister of one of my friends recently, though, and I asked her what is was like to be one of the few Black students in our grade school. She answered as you would expect – that it was really hard, and that it often felt like people had been taught to hide their hate.

I guess my privilege meant I never had to consider her point of view, but today I consider it all the time, and I hope my love shines stronger than others’ hate. I hope yours does, too. And I hope that considering leads us to be more intentional in our choices of words and actions. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to do better than I did yesterday and to learn all that is being put out there for me to be a better friend and a better human. I hope my circle and those of my children will always be places of safety, compassion, and an eagerness to understand and stand beside Black humans. I’ll continue to celebrate Black History Month March – next January.

 

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