A Reflection on Black History Month

Photo by Dexter Coen Gilbert ’21

It is hard to believe that it is March 3 and the month of February has already passed. A couple of weeks ago, Bryn Mawr College invited Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum as the distinguished visitor for Black History Month. Tatum is the author of highly acclaimed book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?:And Other Conversations About Race. Although I was not familiar with either her work or her book, I decided to attend the talk as the title immediately caught my attention. In many ways, this title brings to light what is often unspoken of even in our own dining center. Ultimately I was glad I attended. Tatum discussed both the influence of her book, since it was first published in 1997, as well as other aspects of her personal encounters with race. Her enlightening talk made me think of an important question: What does Black History Month mean to me?

As a younger child, I often thought about Black History Month as a time of reflection. It was a time to think about the African American leaders who have paved the way for freedom and equality, leaders both at the forefront of history and those who played in the background. I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist who fought for equality of the races and supported this with his foundational Christian principles. I also thought about poets and leaders like Maya Angelou whose words of wisdom resided as a source of hope and inspiration. Now, I find myself reflecting on the people in modern pop culture and the entertainment industry who influence and promote Black culture as a beautiful thing. Actresses like Angela Bassett and singers like Stevie Wonder come to mind. I think about singers like the late Whitney Houston, who was spunky, talented and intelligent. She was a singer who embraced her natural beauty and was a symbol of independence and empowerment. All of the people I have mentioned provide an outlet for Black people to identify with what they see or hear on screen. While I do not forget these people the rest of the year, this month further reestablishes my gratitude for those who have paved the way for Black people to embrace their culture in many ways, whether through books, music, dance, or film.

While Black History Month, to me, is a time of reflection and gratitude, I cannot ignore the controversy surrounding it every year. A circulated video I came across while scrolling through my social media feed was of Morgan Freeman expressing his attitudes towards the month in a 60 Minutes interview. While the post did not display the full context of the interview, there were nevertheless several interesting ideas Freeman presented. Freeman, an African-American actor best known for his compelling narration and talent, was asked about Black History Month, to which he responded with the question: “You’re gonna regulate my history to a month?”  He went on to explain: “I don’t want a Black History month. Black History is American history.” When interviewer Mike Wallace asked how people should get rid of racism, Freeman responded, “Stop talking about it. I’m gonna stop calling you a White man. And I’m gonna ask you to stop calling me a Black man.”  Freeman’s comments were stated in 2005, so it is possible that his views could have changed or stayed the same since this interview. Nevertheless, I found it interesting that this clip circled around my news feed at the time that it did. It made me think about the sheer impact of having a month dedicated to Black history. This month means different things to different people. While I choose to see the month as an honor of individuals who have shaped American history, even when at the time of their oppression they were seen as the margins of American history, other people see it as a negative thing and wonder why Black history is restricted to one month. The idea forces one to think about the issue critically. Is not having a Black History month better for race relations than actually having one? What does the month mean in this present day? How should it be celebrated?

For me, while I don’t necessarily see a particular problem with having a Black History Month, it would be wrong for me to ignore the fact that at Haverford there is somewhat of a lack of “outward” celebration in honor of the month. This is not to say that there haven’t been conversations in classrooms or environments, which is very much possible, but I have not witnessed any. To my knowledge there haven’t been many exhibits, performances or celebrations of the month on campus (with the exception of group led conversations held by the Black Student League (BSL)). While this is not anyone’s fault in particular, it has forced me to isolate my experience of the month and reflect on it on my own. While the month means something important to me, the lack of conversations and celebration around campus has made me wonder if the month is just another month to other people. Should only those who identify with Black culture take the reigns of celebrating and recognizing it? If so, what does that say about our community as a collective group of people?

I’ve left the month of February with questions still on my mind. What does Black History Month mean to Black people and what does it mean to people of other races? Also, how should it be celebrated? However anyone chooses to answer these questions, I believe it is important that Black History month be considered a time of reverence for individuals who have, and continue to, influence culture today.

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