This article is part of a series of staff insights, observations and perspectives to commemorate Black History Month. Click here to see similar posts.
As we bring Black History Month to a close, I was asked to reflect on what Black History Month meant to me growing up. Black history has always been a constant education avenue in my life. I grew up in a Washington, D.C., household shaped by ideals of black progressives originated by my father’s upbringing in Philadelphia in the 50’s and the 60’s. This was balanced by the legacy of black conservatism that came from my mother growing up on the coast of South Carolina during the same time period. You learn a lot. You see the world through two lenses – fight AND flight. This strange juxtaposition became to be the foundation of Black History Month as grew into an adult.
At its core, Black History Month was a time for my teachers to feature prominent black leaders and contributors to society in our day-to-day learning. While this was a great experience and I learned a lot, it was inconspicuously disconnected from what I was learning about the country in which I lived. There were great bulletin boards, flashcards, and even plays and performances where we all participated. It was a great exercise and even fulfilling part of my elementary and middle school experience. However, retrospectively I can remember three things that I took from Black History Month that have shaped me as an adult.
- The juxtaposition of pride and pain – Children were not designed to process feelings this strong and diametrically opposed. Every piece of history that I engaged with as a youth was soaked with pride and amazement at the contribution of Black Americans. I was equally horrified and pained by how they were rewarded for these contributions. Whether we talk about MLK’s demise after efforts to bring equality to this nation or Dr. Charles Drew dying as result of injuries from a car accident that could have been treated by a procedure for blood plasma transfusion that he invented. For him to die because he could not be admitted to the hospital that was leveraging his innovation was devastating. I didn’t understand. Naively, I thought for sure that accomplishment was the great equalizer, but I was wrong. This was a repeated narrative across Black History Month – someone does something great then is largely rejected by society. We learned to absorb that pride and have reverence for that pain. What develops from this learning process is a grit that helps you take on more than you think you can handle.
- Expect adversity, plan for success – As my parents and teachers spent the month installing the foundational knowledge of the contribution of Black Americans, there was a common theme of preparing me and my cohorts for adversity as we progressed in the world. We were warned of the narrow margin of error that we had in society and the how we should be air-tight in our preparation for life as an adult. We were taught relentlessly about those who faced similar adversity but managed to avoid failure with slim margins. Whether it was, Thurgood Marshall’s rise as a prominent lawyer and eventual nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court or Jackie Robinson becoming the first black MLB player, there as a subtle theme of perseverance that permeated their stories. As I grew older, I recognized what this form of education served. First, to show me that any rung in the ladder was attainable. And secondly, be extremely careful and don’t screw up. The stakes were extremely high from adolescence to adulthood and Black History Month’s stories of caution and celebration was the platform our community used to gird us with the where-with-all to navigate our environment.
- Be Pragmatic, courageous and legacy-focused – One story that has always stood out to me was the story of Dred Scott. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Scott was a slave that unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1857 based on the fact that he had lived in Illinois and Wisconsin where slavery was illegal. He lost his case, but the premise of this case became the impetus for American civil and human rights. The question of whether people of African ancestry can claim American citizenship led to questions of men and women being classified as property. This helped lead to the Civil War and emancipation of slaves. Mr. Scott was pragmatic in his approach; I resonated with that. He was a thinker’s thinker. Finding the loophole that provided the reflection society needed to become a better version of itself was an unprecedented chess move against racial discrimination and hypocrisy. He showed great courage to file his case, let alone defend it all the way to the Supreme Court. He was future-focused to see that the Supreme Court case would help him or pave the way for those who came after him. It’s called “The Supreme Court case that started the Civil War.” That’s a legacy of which we can all be proud.
Broadly speaking, I think Black History Month is a portal. It opens every February to help us reflect on what history might say about us and our generation. The stories of the past should lead to greater introspection and investigation into other societal conditions so history does not repeat itself. The ghosts of our past are louder and more evident in today’s narrative than they have ever been.
I am so glad that I’ve been prepared to face these issues head on by the fervor of my ancestors and others who came before me. Had their stories and the history of this country been completely erased, I would view today’s ills as new or contemporary. They are not. These challenges persist despite the efforts of many to put overcome them for good. What I learned through Black History Month is that if I learn and apply these core principles, I stand a decent chance of excelling in a hostile and combative environment. That’s a lesson I think all my friends and colleagues should take from Black History Month.