OPINION | Reimagining Black History Month

by Reagan Jackson

(This article is reprinted with permission from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods and Reagan Jackson. Read the full Reimagining Black History Month” series on FrontPorch.Seattle.gov. Stories and profiles will be added throughout the month.)

The earliest memory I have of celebrating Black History Month was in the fourth grade. I attended a predominantly white school in Middleton, Wisconsin. One day, my mom noticed my backpack was much heavier than usual. She asked why I was taking so many books to school. I told her about the lesson from the day before where my teacher summed up Black history with one specific story, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This was long before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent Ted Talk about the dangers of a single story, long before I’d taken any social justice classes or learned any language to label that moment for the reductive, misguided, oppressive experience it was.

I only knew that what my teacher was teaching was incomplete. Growing up with a mom who was also a professor of African, African American, and women’s studies meant I was blessed to be exposed to books, movies, lectures, and events that left me with a robust and balanced understanding of who I was and where I came from. I knew slavery was not the whole sum of our history, that we were inventors, royalty, secret agents, activists, and so much more, and I wanted to share that with my teacher and my classmates.

I’d like to say it was because I was a natural educator who simply wanted to share knowledge, but the truth is less magnanimous and more defensive. I simply didn’t want to be looked at the way they looked at me, with pity, like I should be ashamed of my ancestors for having been enslaved. They made me feel like the color of my skin made me inferior, and they weaponized my own history to do it. I wanted everyone at that school to know the beauty, the innovation, the pride, and the strength of my Black ancestry. But the onus should never have been on a fourth grader to provide that added context. In this country, I feel like I am always screaming at the top of my lungs simply to assert my humanity, that I am no more but certainly no less than anyone else, regardless of the privileges they hold.

Seattle teachers and students have been pushing tirelessly for the inclusion of ethnic studies into the Seattle Public Schools curriculum, because the more opportunities we have to tell the many stories of our histories, including the voices and perspectives that have been marginalized, the more likely we can begin a process of collective healing and discerning how we would like to move forward. And yet there is so much resistance to something that could be so powerfully connecting.

This year, as I have the opportunity to reimagine a Black History Month that is not about proving my humanity or worth or even educating others, I’m turning inward, asking myself, if we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams, what dreams do we seed into Black futures? We are living history, moving daily through a very strange time which some will look back on as the second civil rights movement. Our ancestors struggled so hard to ensure we would have our freedom, the right to vote and to our bodily autonomy, and yet here we are, retreading the same ground simply to attempt to regain the rights we had taken for granted.

Last month, we added Tyre Nichols to the dense tragic lineage of names we will remember for the worst possible reason. Over the last decade, it’s sometimes felt like there are more Black people famous for their deaths than for what they did during their lives. This is an awful cultural problem that we need to address in so many ways, from therapeutic interventions for police so they can address why their fear and bias keep resulting in Black death, to grief counseling and support for families and communities continuously being ripped apart. At times, the rage and the grief feel untenable. I think this cannot be what our ancestors dreamed of, and it is certainly not what any of us deserve, but here we are, fighting for our very life breath.

When I look back at history, I have wondered who I would be in a different time, and how I would navigate the challenges, but the more relevant question is who am I now? How has my ancestry and our collective lived history shaped me to move through this moment? I won’t be around to know how or if I’ll be remembered, but all history is made by simply living our lives.

This Black History Month, I’ve reimagined our relationship to those making history right now. For this month, I’ve curated a series of articles, videos, and events where contemporary Blackness can be seen and heard, where we can share our stories and connect who we have been to who we will become.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Reagan Jackson is an award-winning journalist, multi-genre writer, activist, artist, and international educator with an abiding love of justice, spirituality, and creating community. She is the co-executive director of Young Women Empowered and the co-founder of Blackout Healing. Find out more at www.reaganjackson.com.

📸 Featured Image: Illustration courtesy of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

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