It’s no understatement to say that Black people built this country. The stature of the United States in the world today is, in large part, due to its 246 years of unpaid, enslaved labor, and I believe that remembering what got us to this point is the only way to truly understand what it means to live in this country today.
I must note that some people reading this may have come to the topic of modern Blackness, and therefore, Black history, through the national reckoning that arose last summer to realize the fact that Black lives matter. While the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — who now, too, find themselves among the ranks of our nation’s Black history — represent an important point of realization for many Americans, they are but a symptom of our collective need to better understand the realities of Black history and thereby Black people.
Growing up in Tennessee and then in Texas, Black History Month (really just the first week of February) was the time when our teachers would put off discussion of Christopher Columbus and Davy Crocket to talk about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. The students would recite the names of these figures and the one act that the textbook picked as their accomplishment: Martin Luther King Jr. gave a big speech; Parks sat on a bus once; Malcolm X used violence to achieve his goals. My elementary school, where I was one of about 20 Black students who I can remember (including my own sister), even put on an annual play for parents with the kids dressed up as King and all the other figures we had studied.
The problem with this? First, Black History Month has little to no purpose if we all choose to recognize only the events and figures that help affirm our own current worldview. Notably absent from the plays and our studies were the likes of Nat Turner — the enslaved man who in 1831 led an insurrection against the brutal slave masters in Virginia, killing 55 — and others who were deemed too controversial. These events, however, are integral to Black history, and we must remember all of that Black history in order to learn from it at all.
Still, to me, Black History Month is so much more than remembering names and figures. Nat Turner’s rebellion came just 30 years before the Civil War and helped stoke the abolitionist sentiments which led to the republic we know today. He was hanged for his actions. Thomas Edison’s light bulb was not effective until Lewis Latimer introduced to him the long-lasting filament that is still used in different forms to this day. But Latimer is rarely mentioned as the inventor of the modern light bulb. These are just two examples of why Black History Month has to be about recognizing the contributions of Black people to all of our lives, made even under the worst of circumstances.
For my family, Black History Month was always a year-round endeavor. Whether it was Kwanzaa, Juneteenth or just a random Sunday at home, there was never just one time to be unapologetically Black or to discuss those who came before us.
However, I recognize that my family is not the average in the United States. I can trace my own Black history back six generations to slaves in Texas. I know my grandmother went to Merritt College, 7 miles from UC Berkeley, with Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. She even attended their first meeting before they went on to found the Black Panther Party in Oakland, the city where both my parents grew up.
As I grew up, my parents made an effort to keep me rooted in my heritage. It wasn’t until much later that I realized, for example, nearly every book I had read as a young kid was either about the likes of Sojourner Truth and Matthew Henson or drawn from a curated list of Black authors who portrayed Blackness (especially in the United States) as something to be cherished and defended. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve watched Alex Hailey’s “Roots” (yes, all eight 1.5 hour parts), and I can still remember the walls of our house lined with relics of African empires past.
My point in writing this is not to suggest that everyone reading dedicate their lives to the study of Black history in the United States. Instead, it is to say that dedicating one month to understanding our past and listening to those whose lives and existences are a constant reminder of that often bleak history is an entirely surmountable task.
Further, given the increasingly popular opinion that racism (and, inherently, its child, race) have somehow perished from within our nation’s borders, it’s important to consider not only all that we as a people have accomplished but all the work that is yet to be done. Those who believe we as a nation have realized King’s dream ought to read about his Poor People’s Campaign, and those who believe civil rights are a concern of generations past ought to consider John Lewis’s Voting Rights Act, which has yet to pass through Congress. I think a consideration of the truths of Black history — truths that make us uncomfortable about both our current state of affairs and our future — is a more holistic model of how to approach this month. And maybe it is a model for how we should all look at Black history every month.
Jason Dones is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying physics and political economy.