Founded by Carter G. Woodson and other key African American figures, Black History Month officially began as a week dedicated to Black legacy, struggles, and culture in 1926. The 1960s catapulted the week into a month-long tribute. The mid-1970s cemented Black History Month in America’s cultural consciousness—every president since then has affirmed Black History Month.
Ashaliegh Carrington on Black History Month
I was five years old when I first heard the word “n*****”. It was the second week of the month, or Second Sunday as we call it. The children’s choir had just finished singing “What A Mighty God We Serve.” The pastor had called all the children to the front to discuss Black History Month. I was wearing a white dress. My mother held my hand, walked me to the front row of the congregation, smiled at me, and then walked back to her seat.
I sat next to my best friend, Faith. She had small cornrow braids and wore a purple dress and soon we began talking amongst ourselves. The pastor and one usher wheeled a squat, fat tv television from the back. I turned to watch him place the VHS tape into the television.
“Now, listen children,” he said. “ It’s time we talk about February. The month for which we celebrate the hope, survival, and legacy of those who fought for us to have our freedom.” He pressed play on the remote and then sat down on the floor.
On the television screen, I saw a man getting attacked by a black and brown Rottweiler, the dog’s teeth on full display ready to attack the black man’s body. His mournful expression forever burned into my memory. His shirt was wrinkled while his pants were straight. The police officer held the dog’s leash and pulled the black man forward. The audio began to play off Governor George Wallace’s famous speech,
“Segregation Now. Segregation Tomorrow. Segregation Forever.”
We all sat, watching, black boys and girls in their suits and dresses. The next image we all witnessed was the bombing of 16th street in Birmingham. A tall church with two towers on the right and left side, being devoured by flames. The white subtitles against the black screen stated that four girls had died in that church. The audio of Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech began to play as new images showed lynchings and protests side by side.
When the film was over, one of the ushers wheeled the television to the back of the congregation. The adults behind us were whispering amongst one another, some even crying. I looked at Faith, her left hand was tight, her eyes were wet, and her cheeks were red. I felt my chest tighten and my stomach turn. The Pastor stood up. He wore a black robe, and on it was a red cross on the right side of his chest.
“I understand that was a lot for you all. That you young people may not have been introduced to such vile images. I cannot apologize for what you may face in the future. I, nor your church family, can protect you.”
He slowly paced in front of us not meeting our eyes.
“The world may not see you as the bright, beautiful, young people we know you to be. To that world out there, you are a n*****. Though I pray to the almighty that no one ever calls you something that vile.”
I looked down at my hands, now aware of my brown skin in a new context.
“We celebrate Black History Month as a reminder that you are not a “n****” or “colored”, but more than that; you are beautiful black children with a legacy of triumph. Always remember that you are black and you are beautiful! That Black History Month is a reminder to you of you being a living testament of God’s strength.”
The congregation members began to holler and clap their hands. “Now, join me in the Lord’s Prayer.”
From five to twenty one, I have known this month to be both authentic and performative. I have watched corporations grab at the idea of gaining black loyalty to their brands just by having us in commercials. I’ve sat in class and watched as teenagers debated Harriet Tubman’s importance.
I have laughed as I have driven late at night with friends blasting Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” This year, 2021, Black History Month means survival. Surviving Covid-19, surviving ignorance, and watching conversations unfold about race in America. This February it is not performative or authentic; it is a place for us to catch our breath and educate. February 2021, will always be a reminder of us becoming better than we were.