Rachel Reads: The More You Know, Black History Month Edition

by | Feb 25, 2021 | Other

*Content Warning: Mention of Rape, Lynching*

Imagine if we shifted our perspective from a patriarchal viewpoint and started to look at what Black women and femmes have done for not only Black people, but the world at large.

Black History Month is back again, the same way it’s come back around since 1970. Wow….1970? Majority of Black folks have been celebrating Black history month for…only 51 years? Half a century is quite a bit of time for our Black History Month celebration to be so cyclic; and yet, Black folks will typically respond to that with “well Black History Month IS during the shortest month of the year”. Honestly, that bothers me to this day. What also bothers me is the way our African diasporic experience is framed. I remember every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (in January for those who may not be familiar) my predominately white all-girls private school had us read excerpts from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It wasn’t until I was in college at the University of Memphis (with a 33 percent African American student population) where I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” accompanied by “Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B DuBois and various other writings from Booker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Huges, Phyllis Wheatly, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni, just to name a few. My world, even as a young Black kid, was opened and I began to really see how expansive my culture and people were. But even then, I was only scratching the surface.

Most Black History Month (BHM) programs discuss three people in three ways. Dr. King as the “model negro” that the white folks love to sanitize and laude as the type of Black person Black people should aspire to be. Malcolm X as Dr. King’s antitheseis; the “mean negro”, if you will. And then Rosa Parks, the Black woman to satiate the “feminists.” Those Big Three are legends within the Black cultural experience, but every February, they’re reduced to a two-sentence acknowledgement, if that. I began to wonder, “Well if my people are so expansive, and our history so rich and vast (even with all of the violence and pain): Why don’t we know more?” The answer that I discovered is that our historical perspectives are focused on cisgendered, hetero-presumed men that are, by definition of their outspoken rhetoric, leaders and representative of the Black community at large. This inequitable focus has limited our understanding of our history and how truly amazing it is.

Let’s think about that for a second: Imagine if we shifted our perspective from a patriarchal viewpoint and started to look at what Black women and femmes have done for not only Black people, but the world at large.

In 1944, a young Black woman named Recy Taylor was raped by six white men. Rosa Parks was an NAACP organizer that connected with Recy Taylor and helped organize with Mrs. Taylor to share her story and demand justice. Rosa Parks founded the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor and gained the support of notable Black, queer activits such as Mary Church Terrell and Langston Hughes. Mrs. Parks and Mrs. Taylor organized intentionally and were able to bring international attention to Mrs. Taylor’s case. Without knowing this about Mrs. Parks, one would not know that she was a main architect of bringing such attention to the patriarchal violence Black women were experiencing in the 1940s in America.

Another great Black queer feminist icon who is consistently left out during Black History Month but absolutely should be honored is Ms. Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha is the mother of the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement as she was prominently involved in the Stonewall Riots 1969. In Greenwich Village in New York, many of the bars were run by mafia bosses. One night the police raided the Stonewall Inn and a riot ensued. At the heart of that riot was Ms. Marsha throwing rocks and hollering; this would ignite a new flame to the civil rights movement, one that was inclusive of Black trans women and Black queer folks. Marsha’s unmuted battle cries and righteous rage led to the birth of a movement that saw the founding of the first ever US trans rights organization, STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Ms. Sylvia Riviera, it saw a drag queen defy the gender binary (the “P” stood for “Pay It No Mind” in reference to Ms. Johnson’s response about her gender), and her legacy continues on today with many Black trans women demanding the removal of police from Pride activities and spaces.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. We learn about the 19th Amendment and women getting the right to vote, but rarely do we hear about Ms. Ida B. Wells. Ms. Ida was a journalist and activist that had witnessed the horrors and trauma of the lynching of Black people across America. Rather than succumb to the overwhelming emotional trauma and grief lynchings were known to bring, Ms. Ida decided to write about the lynchings investigating and documenting the atrocities, something that had never been done before. Ms. Ida was not new to the “you know what: I’ll do it myself” school of thought. Ms. Ida traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Parade, organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. She was subsequently told that the Black women suffragettes would have to march in the back. Ms. Ida was never going to participate in a segregated suffrage parade; so when the marchers passed, she boldly and intentionally stepped to the front of the parade. Ms. Ida did this because she wanted to make sure future generations would benefit from her action.

These Black women are mothers of movements, icons, and leaders with their own rich history of defiance that young Black people, like me, are able to benefit from. Their bravery, radical honesty, boundless love, focus and determination more than qualify them as legends of Black History. As February comes to a close, I hope others are encouraged to look beyond the white-washed, sanitized and misleading narratives that typically invade Black History Month. Instead, shift your perspective to learn more about the mothers of movements, the Black queer history that is Black History, and the truly expansive nature of Black culture.