“It makes me proud. I wanted people to feel proud, and have love for themselves.”
-Beyoncé, on “Formation”
We keep heating up, so if we’re about
To reach our melting point, this could be
The tip of iceberg that brings us to a boil.
-Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed
Let’s start with an assumption: we’re trying to work Black History Month out of existence. Black History Month is a stop-gap—a temporary solution to the invisibility of Black people in curriculum and media during the other eleven months of the year—until we reach the day when Black people’s stories are included as a foundational part of American history, literature and culture. If that’s the assumption we’re working from about what Black History Month is supposed to be (as it was laid out by Carter G. Woodson in its early iterations), then we might be very close to our goal. We might have enjoyed a BHM so spectacular that it might be one of the last.
Black History Month is inherently about counter-narratives and overlooked histories. Only the marginalia here are whole lives, whole bloodlines, whole cities built, burned and razed throughout the history of our nation. I walked away from a very expensive undergraduate education with little to show for myself other than three ideas that I take with me everywhere:
Progress is not linear. It has stops, starts, peaks and valleys, and the passage of time in and of itself offers no assurance that things will get better.
You can’t tell the story of people in America without telling the story of Black people in America.
My education had left me profoundly under-educated about myself as a Black woman.
I learned these ideas by reading the words of Black and Brown people of the Caribbean and African diaspora, Black and brown people in Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia. I turned the lines I was reading over and over in my head, working them like soft putty, on one level because they were new ideas and on another level because they felt like ideas that were part of my composite fabric. Ideas that were new, but cleaved to me quickly and helped me reimagine myself as a whole Black person with history and a fleet of ancestors behind me.
Before college, I had known that what my k-12 experience taught me about Blackness formally was scarcely the tip of the iceberg. I knew I wasn’t getting enough diverse sources of content (the first book I read by and about a Black person in school was Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was passed out without ceremony during my junior year English class), but I didn’t have any way of understanding how missing this content was also shaping the way I approached the world. Learning algebra has value because you can use algebra to solve equations and any number of real-life scenarios. However, learning algebra has perhaps even more value in that it shapes how our minds can react to information algebraically, to think abstractly, to remove variables and consider the implications and withstanding conditions.
Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God taught me at face value about a Black woman living among other Black people in the Florida heat of the early 1900s, but it also taught me about how Black people are inventive with language, how the truth is not an objective reality, but a fashioned thing, how Black people use ordinary objects and language as tools to communicate our shared realities, how Black joy and love are forms of resistance in a world which seeks to destroy us. These things informed me not just in content, but in how I made sense of myself in the world, and what beauty Black people brought to bear into this world. The content was meaningful, but it’s how the book caused me to hold my head higher in class, to seek out more authors of color, to view vernacular not as a lesser form of English, but as a powerful shorthand for communicating belonging, one that I was proud to have access to. I haven’t given the fact that I drop my G’s in all my gerunds a second thought since then.
If Black History Month is about an increased awareness of and exposure to Black content, then, hot damn, we nailed it. We got a wide and diverse view into Blackness. We saw that Blackness contained multitudes. In the music world alone, we started the month with Leon Bridges’s haunting video for “River,” showing Black resilience through family, absolution, and love. We had “Formation,” a video that had this Black lady with cocoa butter gel and a shaker of crushed red pepper in desk drawers at work scream aloud with joy. Beyoncé and Bruno Mars saluted both Michael Jackson and the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl half time show. I went to the national tour of “Motown: The Musical,” where, as my fiancé and I got in the elevator, a couple of about 60 told us that this was their music, the music they had grown up with. The ownership and pride and excitement they had about us, a couple 30 years younger, coming to enjoy the music their generation had helped make, had me welling up before the show started. That night, the halls of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center swelled as people of all races, ages, genders, classes, and ability levels sang songs for and about Black people. Ledisi, Stevie Wonder, Jazmine Sullivan, Musiq Soulchild and Janelle Monae all performed in support of #JusticeForFlint. Our president, who is Black, sang Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” with Usher, Anthony Hamilton, Andra Day and Brittany Howard in the DAMN WHITE HOUSE. What would have read like speculative fiction just a decade ago was just another Wednesday night over at Barack n’ems.
What is emerging for me as I think about this past month is how America was collectively compelled to dip below the tip of the iceberg this month, moving from content consumption to meaning making. The signposts and signifiers of Blackness were all around us, and we saw consumers, most of them white, truly grappling with what to do with all this Blackness. People who were confounded by the imagery of “Formation,” who needed step-by-step thinkpieces on every vignette. Yes, that’s a Mardi Gras Indian. No, the white corsets don’t symbolize being trapped, they symbolize Black women gaining access to the cult of domesticity reserved for White women. They’re called box braids. And, I won’t lie, it did something to me to have folks look to the signs and symbols and ideas that feel as familiar to me as skin for meaning, to see them as valuable, too, to see them as beautiful, too. Beyond that, what I saw many white Americans grappling with, both my friends and internet strangers, is the idea that two of us can be looking at the same object and interpreting different meanings based on our different experiences of the world.
A great example can be found here in Jessica Bolanos’s “11 References You Missed in Beyoncé’s Formation.” As I read this list, I thought, these are all obvious and some of these are just off. For instance, number 6 is a man in a bowtie and blazer holding up a paper with a picture of MLK on the front. The author says the thing we missed here is that the paper had MLK on it. If you’re a person who grew up in Black communities, then you are familiar with men from various branches of the Nation of Islam or Black Nationalist groups dressed in bow ties and pristine suits no matter the temperature selling papers on street corners and outside store fronts. I read that immediately as not being about MLK, but being both about MLK and the Black self-determination involved in self-publishing a magazine about Black issues and calling it “The Truth.”
This piece on HuffPo garnered lots of positive, grateful comments from primarily white women readers who felt they better understood the video. This same article posted on HuffPo’s Black Voices FaceBook got all out dragged by predominantly Black woman commenters for missing the mark. If a person didn’t know Black symbols, the article was fine and helpful. If you were a Black reader, you knew by number two that the author was not fully in the know, though trying to do her best. This is the kind of algebraic thinking we can do when we engage with Black content in new ways, and while I found this article off-base, there was truth and meaning making in how both separate audiences engaged with the article as an entry point into their own experience of the video. I imagine the author, too, is better for having been privy to both conversations. Maybe she’ll think twice again before presuming the ignorance of her audience when half the symbols weren’t even in her field of awareness to begin with (read: this is a Beyoncé video, ma’am and you can’t be doing some Sociology 101 ass analysis out here when people are straight writing dissertation-level theses on the significance of the wig choices alone on GroupMe during their lunch breaks. Bloop.).
If we’re going to work Black History Month out of business, we’ve got some unearthing to do. 365 (and sometimes 366) days’ worth of making sure Black stories and Brown stories and Native stories and Asian stories and Latina stories get told and incorporated into the canon alongside the same crusty mainstays that have been chilling there for decades. There are whole icebergs that require excavation for the shared salvation of all of us from our fictive history, for a shared reality that is not based in the lie of white superiority and Black and Brown peonage, whole icebergs of unlearning, as Kenny Wiley puts it. Where Blackness encompasses both the pains of injustice and pleasures of post-coital Red Lobster, and the in-between bittersweet feelings on days when it’s really hard to wake up and get to work because another person who shares your skin has been murdered with nothing in his or her hands but a wish to be left alone, but you know that there are people there who can help you process what’s going on.
If we’re going to put Black History Month into our shared past, we’re gonna need (365-28) more days of Black excellence, Black love, and Black resilience in our news feeds, on our iPhones, on our best seller’s lists, and in our movie theatres.
We’re gonna need more of Black Twitter teaching the entire world how to wield the internet for good.
We’re gonna need more of brilliant podcasters like Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton and Kid Fury and Crissle West who are unapologetically Black, brutally funny and bruising in their dragging of sorry-ass-shit from White America.
We’re gonna need Chris Rock to do some better jokes that don’t throw Black women and Black people at large under the bus.
We’re gonna need a world in which Chris Rock isn’t painted into the shittiest corner possible, where only the Black folks on the red carpet get asked why they’re not boycotting, as if a White person has no responsibility to care about the people of color being purposefully excluded from the same films that earn them money and accolades.
We’re gonna need more examples of Black and Brown burgeoning activists like the Radical Monarchs, Marley Dias, and Isiah Britt to encourage the little ones.
We’re gonna need more than the white-washed interpretations of the actions and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver to be in our history classes.
We’re gonna need more space to make meaning of the different ways our bodies shape the way we view stimuli from the world.
And we’re most assuredly gonna need more Beyoncé. I’m down to get in formation if you are.
Here’s to the end of my favorite month of the year in the hope that we can build a bigger, brighter, Blacker daily reality for each and every one of us.