Too often, Black History Month is presented as the actions of a small number of extremely charismatic, often male, leaders from the Civil Rights era. In reality, Black people have participated in every social circle within the United States since this nation’s founding. Architects, artists, engineers, scientists, and countless others from the archives of Black history are either ignored, represented in isolation from one another, or the significance of their accomplishments are ludicrously diminished.
Regarding the Civil Rights Movement specifically, most people have heard nothing of that era’s essential Black women leaders such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Dorothy Height. Meanwhile, the labor of Rosa Parks is often flippantly reduced to simply having “sat her a** down”, erasing her twelve year involvement with the NAACP prior to being arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man in 1955. More frustratingly, most people have no idea that Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man, was the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, despite being subjected to homophobia from other Civil Rights movement leaders.
To avoid becoming, as Toni Morrison calls it, mere “reaction to white presence”, it is also important to explore Black history outside of direct resistance to racial injustice. Marie Maynard Daly was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D, obtaining a doctorate in chemistry. Black people have been successful classical musicians, while others have invented appliances essential to the maintenance of modern society.
In recent times, Black cultural producers have preserved Black history in increasingly imaginative and creative ways. Poet Marilyn Nelson wrote the poetry collection Carver: A Life in Poems to capture and convey the often overlooked complexities of George Washington Carver’s life, who was a teacher and musician as well as an innovative scientist. Filmmaker Shola Lynch directed the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners to well-roundedly tell the story of Angela Davis, an icon of the Black Power Movement whose legacy often goes enshrouded in idol worship and myth. Finally, while comedic in tone, cultural critic Crissle West’s overview of Harriet Tubman’s involvement in the Civil War gives the Union military strategist and spy overdue credit for her war contributions.
The half has never been told about Black history. Layers of depth lie beneath popularly accepted and articulated narratives, and countless numbers of others have been ignored or unspoken. Taking Black history seriously requires we scour all eras of the past and, like those mentioned above, develop compelling methods for disseminating these revitalized narratives to the masses.
The devaluation of Black history is no coincidence; if Black history were taken seriously, the myth of Black inferiority, a foundational pillar of white supremacy, would be incapable of justifying itself. If Black history were taken seriously, more Black people would understand the significance of our impact upon this nation—and would, hopefully, utilize the blueprints left by our predecessors to continue working toward a just, equitable society. As the struggle for liberation from systems of domination continues, we must remember that a liberated future is improbable if we fail to reclaim the infinite riches of our past.