Black writer and playwright James Baldwin once wrote: “It is the past that makes the present coherent.” The unfiltered lens of history—in this case, Black history—can help us see and understand more clearly our contemporary moment. For this reason, among others, Black History Month is observed in February of every year. In fact, Black History Month has been around for decades. But if you’re only just hearing about it now, you’re going to want to take notes…
What we choose to forget
As Black American educator and historian Lonnie G. Bunch wrote for The Guardian in 2018: “One can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation, by what it deems important enough to remember: what graces the walls of its galleries? What elements of a country’s identity are featured in its national museums? What images appear on its currency and what holidays are celebrated?
I would suggest, however, that one learns even more by examining what a nation chooses to forget. What sins of the past, what decisions and what groups are omitted from the national memory reveal not only a great deal about a nation’s history, but about its current political and societal concerns. The challenges of the past and the burden of forgetting weighs heavily on a nation’s subconscious. In the UK and in the United States, what is often forgotten or undervalued is the history and the experiences of its black citizens.”
And in the spirit of remembering and celebrating, Black History Month was born.
The origins of Black History Month
The “Father of Black History”, Black historian Carter G. Woodson is the man behind Black History Month. In the summer of 1915, Woodson, along with many other Black Americans, travelled to Chicago. They were joining in on the national celebration of the 50th anniversary of Juneteenth. There, Woodson, A. L. Jackson, George Cleveland Hall and James E. Stamps founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). They founded this association to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture.
Later, in 1926, the ASNLH sponsored the first national Negro History Week. The dates were chosen to reference the Black American tradition of honouring Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, both in February. The Week was intended to support schools in promoting greater knowledge of Black history—beyond just these two men—to include the rich history of Black people who have advanced human civilisation. Woodson always believed in the liberatory power of history, and once said that “If a race has no history… it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
He never intended for it to be a one-week affair, and fought for Black history to be celebrated year-round. Eventually, during the mobilisation of students during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, colleges across the US began advocating for Black studies programmes, and as momentum built, the first-ever recorded Black History Month was celebrated in 1970. In 1976, it was decreed a national observance.
(SOURCE/ READ MORE ON @INTERSECTIONALENVIRONMENTALIST AND @THECONSCIOUSKID)
Black History Month today
Black history is taught in schools, but the curriculum, as @intersectionalenvironmentalist notes, is “outdated, obscure, and fissured”. Some barely teach Black history at all, or leave out lesser-known figures, focusing on some of the more popular individual heroes. Even then, the stories of individual heroes can be whitewashed—see the whitewashed history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Across the US, 7 states fail to directly mention slavery, and 8 states don’t even mention the Civil Rights Movement. This year, a Utah school even made Black History Month optional, upon some parents’ request. Then it reversed itself, but that’s not the point. The point is that Black History Month continues not to receive the due respect, attention, and thought it deserves.
As education, research, and policy organisation The Conscious Kid expresses: “We wish we didn’t need to say it, but it is very important for all educators to observe Black History Month, including non-Black educators and those teaching majority non-Black students because they are least likely to receive this kind of content during and outside of school.” The result of this? Kids develop anti-Black biases. This, alone, should already be a deeply alarming problem. But it would do good for us to remember always that our environmentalism has to be intersectional (which, by the way, is a term coined by Black lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and a leading scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw). Which is to say that to be climate activists, we have to be actively anti-racist too (a concept that we’ve explained before).
Not just about celebrating
This gets at the most crucial point here—which is that Black History Month is not just about celebrating. Like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it’s not just about posting a photo on Instagram to virtue-signal that you care. Sharing something on your social media about a lesser-known Black public figure shouldn’t be the end of your participation and involvement in Black History Month. Nor should your engagement only span this 28-day period. Black History Month is for you—us—to do the work, if we haven’t been doing it already. To help, here are some curated resources…
DO THE WORK
Black educator Rachel Elizabeth Cargle has started a free and exploratory month-long learning experience on her Instagram. She will not be teaching—instead, her method is to provide prompts for allies to research, to find out more on your own. Follow along here. Aside from Cargle’s Instagram page, feel free to follow: The Conscious Kid, which will be sharing resources throughout the month for educators and families. Intersectional Environmentalist, which will be spotlighting the achievements and work of Black environmentalists. And on that note, check out ClimateInColour, which has an online course on the colonial history of the climate. And last but not least, The Slow Factory, which consistently shares concise information on doing the anti-racism work.
It’s not enough to just download information, we also need to act. As climate magazine Atmos highlights, there are many additional actions allies can take. Among them are: donating, protesting, speaking up, and paying reparations. The last action item involves supporting the Black community when we learn from them. Many Black educators have patron pages that you can support, which is a good start. Sometimes, you don’t even need to offer financial compensation, if you can’t afford it. You could signal-boost their posts, share their work with your community, or even just stream podcasts! (On that note, two of our favourite environmental podcasts are the YIKES podcast and How to Save a Planet. Which, by the way, are very accessible.)
We all start somewhere
It might feel overwhelming. But our hope is that this list—packed full of incredibly rich, yet easily digestible resources—will help you start. In the end, imperfect allyship is better than performative allyship. (Or worse, no allyship). And as we said earlier, it doesn’t start nor end here. February only has 28 days, but the learning and the work should go on beyond Black History Month. So, shall we begin?
Featured image: Diana Simumpande on Unsplash
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