I feel about Black History Month the way many folks I know feel about Kwanzaa: it’s a necessary evil. For the past 34 years, I’ve had a highly problematic relationship with this “celebration.” It began in 1980. Being the only dark-skinned kid at a progressive (read “white”) elementary school, I was forced—I really had no choice—to read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for an assembly. After I concluded, the auditorium whooped and hollered, praising the “little Black boy with awesome diction” for his performance. For the next several weeks it was: Rosa Parks, Dr. King, diversity, the melting pot… repeat.
Come March, you would not have known that Black folks existed in this country.
About 10 years ago, I was able to parlay being the only Black man with awesome diction (in some circles) into a lucrative career in public engagement—usually confined to the month of February. Did I feel like a hypocrite? A little bit.
Black History Month leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I can fight against that feeling by earning money. I do my best to introduce audiences to the Black folks who never got the shine they deserve, and I present cultural ideas ranging from Afrofuturism to the Black Arts Movement. But why am I only asked to speak on these things for 28 days out of a full year?
There are tons of jokes about how the history of Black folks only warrants the shortest and coldest month of the year. This doesn’t bother me as much as the idea that the breadth and scope of our history and contributions are not discussed, celebrated, and acknowledged at all times. Black history, in this country, is American history.
When my daughter was born, my wife and I were determined to inform her about all of the cultural groups that belong to her. As we are in a certain economic bracket, we were aware that many of the spaces we would occupy would be about as diverse as a skinhead meeting. From music to food to public and family stories, we decided she would know just how big her history is.
We supplemented the overwhelming whiteness of our neighborhood and her preschool by cultivating and maintaining friendships and bringing her to every single age-appropriate Black cultural event we could find. Before kindergarten, this was easy to uphold. Her mother and I could be the gatekeepers of social information. Now in kindergarten, our ability to control information is compromised by the fact that there are dozens of influences we have no authority over.
My daughter has followed in my footsteps: smart, Black, progressive school; one of a (Black) kind. Things were fine from August 12 to January 17. Then we began receiving requests to plan the school’s Black History Month celebration. And the school approached our daughter about this before contacting us. It put us in a precarious situation.
I hate the idea of encapsulating all of our history into bite-sized chunks—we won’t even get into the amount of pressure put on our daughter. We had to go in on the school for this breach of protocol. I also wanted to ensure that this school took our history seriously. I wanted to remove the novelty of the White gaze on Black culture. We are not some field trip that you go on, returning home with cool Afro-souvenirs to put on your mental shelf.
Black folks seem to be the only group of people who routinely have to scream and wave our arms to be heard. And when we don’t beg for inclusion or notice by White establishments, we are labeled un-American, difficult, and not deserving of more than the scraps we’re given. Black History Month is one of the primary scraps.
As parents, we’re constantly battling on behalf of our children. As Black parents, this battle is intensified to the point of absurdity. Celebrating Black History Month is pointless in our parenting, as it exemplifies our lack of societal power. I do not want to reinforce this idea to my daughter.
We’re raising a girl who is confident, enjoys her intelligence, and is affirmed that her story and the stories of people who share her culture are important. We do not want to put conditions on her history, or her celebration of it. We have a responsibility to let her know, to back her up, in the idea that all of who she is, all of who we are, is bigger and blacker than a frozen February.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.