Every February, my childhood church, one of the few historically black congregations in my hometown, pulled out bins filled with old photocopied pictures and newspaper clippings of famous black Americans. These precious artifacts would then be hung throughout the fellowship hall. Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and many more pioneering giants.
Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I spent most of my elementary school years as the only black girl in my class — sometimes the only black student in the class. Though my racial minority status was always salient to me, race in general was not something anyone discussed. I grew up in the age of mythical colorblindness, and though the month of February was recognized as Black History Month, it was often reduced to a few stories and mentions that were intended to satiate the need of the few students like me that wished for representation.
Perhaps that is why I craved that month when the gallery of black American greats would decorate nearly every inch of the first floor of my church.
I still remember the year the article written about me in the local newspaper was hung alongside all those fearless black icons. I was only nine years old at the time, but that feeling has never left me. It was the moment I realized that I too could make an impact no matter how small. Though I was the “only” in many situations, there in that gallery I was reminded that being the “only” did not mean I was alone or without connection.
Throughout Black History Month, my story and the story of those who came before me is not just visible — it is centered. There is always the fear that in designating a month for recognition we are unintentionally signaling that black history need only be focused on during that time. I don’t believe that. What I do believe is there is great power in centering, in intentionally taking time to engage in active reflection on just how grand and integral the black experience is to our institutions and to our country.
Black History Month is just as much about celebrating the future as it is about remembering the past. It is about honoring the struggle, the sacrifice, the persistence and the joy. It is about acknowledging how far we have come while consciously accepting how far we still have left to go. It is about the short distance of change we have traveled from Mamie Till to Lezley McSpadden. The repercussions are still just as steep for Colin Kaepernick as they were for Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It is about humbly standing in the shadows that Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine or Elon University’s own Phillips-Perry Black Excellence Award recipients cast while recognizing that being a student of color at a historically-white institution still is wrought with inequities to overcome.
The African and African-American Studies program has adopted an African proverb as our creed: “Until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” For 28 days, our community, like so many other communities, offers opportunities to pay our respect to the history that has helped build this nation. For 28 days I hope we listen as the lions tell their history — our history.