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This Is The Necessary Evolution Of Black History Month

For365days a year, I carry the joy and pain of the Black experience, and I have no control over its ebbs and flows. I’ve realized I can only be present in it, which means I have to actively work to change the parts of it that do not serve me. So, for many of us, when Black History Month rolls around, we anticipate the commercialism that comes with it, but as the years pass, we are now asking for more than a one-month PR corporate play or performative allyship. Instead, we are redefining what Black History Month means and how to celebrate it with the community in mind.

As a girl, I knew Black History Month was upon us when teachers hung posters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Now, as an adult, I see curated social media posts by corporations and influencers crop up on the first day of February. Panel discussions and ceremonies peak toward the second week, and as the month winds down, so do the conversations about equality and Black excellence ― the posts and posters fade out. Meanwhile, Black people are left grappling with the reality of these “noble gestures.” Black History Month was not meant to become a month-long PR campaign for allyship, and in 2023 we can no longer entertain the idea that a month of performative activism is enough. 

Black History Month, which started as a week-long celebration in 1915 when Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, was meant to reflect on and honor the progress of the community following emancipation and to discuss our future. This celebration was intended to establish pride and camaraderie among Black Americans. It was necessary during this era when Black people were reckoning with their identity after being stripped of their knowledge of self and lineage during chattel slavery. 

Fast forward to our modern-day, capitalism-infused celebration. Today’s cookie-cutter template allows corporations, politicians, and other influential figures to appear interested in preserving Black life without seemingly any intent of action behind it. To truly honor and contribute to the lives of melanated people would require those in power to redistribute their energy, money, and resources to counteract a system designed to exploit people based on skin color. It’d require more than a month-long commitment.

Look, we don’t need the rest of ya’ll to tell us how great we are — we know. We’ve invented mantras celebrating our greatness, from Black Power to Black Girl Magic. And when we forget, we have people within our communities, teachers, counselors, artists, and spiritual leaders who work tirelessly to remind us.

Here’s what we do need: Give us credit where it’s due — on social media and beyond — especially when it involves compensation.

So, what would a more honest celebration of Black innovation, culture, and life look like in 2023 — just weeks after the killing of Tyre Nichols, one of America’s recent so-called “martyrs?”

For Black people, it means a continued effort to disengage with things, people, projects, and sentiments that do not align with self-preservation. Instead, continue to explore and celebrate your nuanced identity and ancestry. Practice discernment: Not all skinfolk are kinfolk. Question and scrutinize the information you’re being presented until you wholeheartedly understand the messengers’ intentions. And above all, make time to create, bask in joy, and simply rest. 

For the rest of y’all: It’s time to put your bodies and resources to work. Redistribute your wealth, donate to Black femme-led and LGBTQ-led initiatives, read the books by Black authors, and then actively apply the information, figure out a way to get banned critical race theory materials to students where it’s banned. Stop being bystanders, find local justice organizations, and get involved in whatever capacity you can. Talk to your relatives about anti-Black systems and correct them when they’re wrong. And to honor Black life, stop sharing videos of Black trauma and death. 

Instead of using the year’s shortest month just to recognize past and present Black heroes, let’s all look at February as an annual nudge to start (or continue) doing meaningful work to create more equity. What that looks like for all of us will vary, of course. But posters and promo doesn’t mean anything without actively dismantling the systemic structures that still trap Black Americans. 

Allyship isn’t fruitful without action. When we still live in a nation where it is normal to exploit, brutalize, and murder Black bodies, saying you honor our capacity to overcome adversity is like watching someone being held underwater and applauding their fight for air. 

We must focus on Black well-being — not just history — 365 days a year. So in the words of the late, great Alice Walker, let’s use February as a reminder: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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