Why Do I Need Black History Month?

by Aubree Thompson

When asked to write this blog, I admittedly felt nervous.  I’m not much of a writer.  When asked to write specifically on the question, “Why is Black History Month still important?” I felt a bit conflicted.  I remember a classmate from a past Black History Month once remarking: “Well, why don’t we have a white history month?”  At the time, this elicited an immediate eye roll and an unfortunate lack of surprise.  Yet, when it comes to addressing this question, there is a competition of cultures deep in my identity.

I am biracial—half black, half white—living in a world where I am not fully accepted by either white or black culture.  Since the majority culture considers me black, I am certainly more accepted by people of color, am myself more comfortable in black spaces, and identify as such in my daily life as such.  To add to this mix of identity, I am an adopted kid of a transracial family.  Both of my adoptive parents are white, and both of my adoptive brothers are biracial—of the same mix as me.  And this is not to mention a slew of birth siblings who are Latinx, Mexican, African American, and so on.  My family is a big multicultural community. While my adoptive parents worked exceedingly hard to surround both me and my siblings with our identified culture, when I face the question, “What do I really know about the history of the black half of my genetic makeup?” the answer, unfortunately, is not a whole lot.  But to add one last fun spin to my genetic and environmental mix of identity, I am also lesbian.  This makes me, as many others are, a triple minority: I am biracial, female, and lesbian.  When I look at the history books, there are not a lot of people who reflect who I am.  Is there any place in Black History Month for a queer black female?

Black history is often associated with two main things: slavery and the civil rights movement.  Recently for my job (I work with infants through preschoolers), each team of teachers was presented with the task of providing lessons and activities that would honor people of African American history.  Right away, the great and important members of our history come to mind: Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and the Obamas.  But shortly after these strong figures, the list within my memory wears thin.

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM P. STRAETER, AP  Bill Whitfield of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969.

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM P. STRAETER, AP  Bill Whitfield of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969.

While I am embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, this doesn’t mean that the resources are not there—the inspiring figures and heroes of black history. The first time this really registered with me was when I saw a documentary about the Black Panthers, who remain a controversial group within our history.  In grade school, I was taught that Martin Luther King Jr. was “good” and the Black Panthers were “bad.”  This by no means diminishes the amazing work of Martin Luther King Jr., but I was taught that the Black Panthers were violent people who were going about change the wrong way. To my surprise (even anger), this documentary gave me a whole new perspective. The Black Panthers were not simply violent criminals, but rather a group of people who were tired of the acceptance of the murder and brutality of people of color by the authorities—how people of color felt and continue to feel today when they encounter the police.  Society perceived the Black Panthers as intimidating and extreme; however, protection was their primary purpose.  To account for this, the Black Panthers never fired a weapon unless they were fired upon first.  Additionally, they were involved in the community, to strengthen and empower people of color in a time when they were not allowed to exist outside of the bounds that white culture allowed.  The Black Panthers also started the Free Breakfast for Children Program, which today is now the important and widely used WIC program.  In reality it was the majority power structure that created their persona of the "bad blacks."  But because we lived and continue to live in a culture of white privilege and power, this dark persona is easily shared and believed in, and in turn, continues to be taught.  This is one example of how Black History is twisted and not acknowledged in everyday life.

Given this lack of recognition of black historical figures in general, now add the search label of queer black historical figures in African American history.  These are virtually non-existent.  The combination of being black and being LGBT is an uncomfortable conversation in the black community.  It is a topic not often discussed or addressed.  In an article for the Huffington Post, Alvin McEwen discusses the erasing of black LGBT figures completely due to the lack of acceptance within the black community and the fear that LGBT discussion takes away from the discussion of black civil rights.  While the fear is understandable, the intersection of these two identities is important, as people of color are not just heterosexual, but they are also LGBT and face the same levels of discrimination due to their skin color.  This controversy is one that must continue to be explored and discussed.  Are black LGBTQ voices being left out?

As we (teachers) searched for BHM resources, I began looking specifically for representatives of the black LGBTQ community.  To my pleasant surprise, I came across a plethora of amazing people—some of whom I recognized by name, but didn’t know them to be a part of the LGBTQ community, and some of whom I had never heard of.  These names were: Audre Lorde—the American writer and activist who dedicated her life’s work to addressing homophobia, racism, and sexism; Mabel Hampton—who started as a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance, became an LGBT historian (conserving major historical artifacts for the recording of black history), philanthropist, and activist who marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian march on Washington; Angela Davis—known as a brilliant scholar, writer, and professor, who participated in the Black Panther Party, and advocated for improving prison conditions for inmates; Bayard Rustin—best known as a key advisor to MLK Jr. and civil rights activist; the incredible Janet Mock—author, activist for trans rights, and TV host; Kye Allums—first transmale to come out in NCAA basketball and who now advocates for trans rights and safety in sports; and the list goes on.  I look at these incredible queer people of color and what they have done and, on the one hand, am given a feeling of pride, fulfillment, and encouragement as a young queer biracial woman.  But I am also discouraged by the fact that these are the first times I am really learning about them.

Each day my heart is both heavy and happy as I hear teachers discuss other underrepresented people of history such as Billie Holiday, Bessie Coleman, Daniel Hail Williams, and Patricia Bath.  For at least this one month during the first three years of their life, they will have a start to an accurate and full American history versus the one I grew up with.
So why do we still need Black History Month? Why is it important?  Until my young infants and preschoolers are just as aware of the name Barbara Jordan as they are George Washington; until black culture, or let’s be real, all minority cultures, are represented in history books, media, and stories of the past—reflecting the whole truth and recognizing those who have been hidden from current minds—only then will the competition and conflict cease.  Perhaps then we will be able to celebrate a zodiac of cultures and identities—month after month after complementary month.  Perhaps then our society will be whole; perhaps then our divergent human identities will be at peace.  

Until that day, we refuse to be invisible. We cannot be swept under the rug; we cannot be erased. As Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

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Aubree (Aubs) was born and raised in Grand Rapids and could never escape the pull of her hometown.  She completed her Bachelors in Social Work at Calvin College in 2013 and now is in her final year of the Masters in Social Work program at Western Michigan University. She is the MSW intern for the Grand Rapids Pride Center and a co-facilitator for the young adults group.  She’s into coaching/playing basketball and softball (classic), social justice, equality, watching Netflix, hanging with friends, and snuggling kittens.

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