What Black History Month Means to Young Black Artists and Activists

What Black History Month Means to Young Black Artists and Activists

As Black History Month comes to an end, we asked a group of young artists, activists, and writers for their take on the holiday and what—if anything—they do to honor it.
February 29, 2016, 10:00pm

Pictured from top left, clockwise: Jamal Lewis, Mitchell S. Jackson, Kimberly Drew, Rashaad Newsome, DeRay Mckesson, Jessica Disu, niv Acosta, and Emerald Garner. Photos by Lazina Franklin, Charlotte B. Wales, Naima Green, Rashaad Newsome Studio, Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty, Mike Jue, Xeno, and National Action Network

In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week, a celebration of black accomplishment in early 20th century America. Taking the black tradition of celebrating both Abraham Lincoln's and Frederick Douglass's birthdays during the second week of February, he designated that week the time to nationally honor African-Americans who succeeded despite racism. Woodson's project was about remembrance during a time when there was no collective recording of the ways in which black people impacted American society. Fifty years later, the week grew into Black History Month, when in 1976 President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as "the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

For a generation of younger black voices, Black History Month in 2016 feels like what the cultural critic Margo Jefferson wrote in her essay "Eccentricity" about the present day use of the word Negro. The celebration "reflects all the instabilities, all the circumstances, imposed on us. And by us." From a Google doodle of abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the New York Times's "Unpublished Black History" project, BHM today seems to have moved away from a carte-blanche projection of progress to an examination of the uneven reality of being black in America. The current generation appears more interested in a history that spotlights strides made by figures like MLK and Malcolm X while also grappling with the erasure of lesser-known black names such as Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker. During this month in America, black voices online seem interested in telling histories of black success while also accounting for the kind of routine racism that perpetuates black failure.

To better understand the way Black History Month resonates today, I reached out to an array of young black artists, activists, historians, writers, and a students to get their varied perspectives on what this month means to them.

Photo courtesy of Rashaad Newsome Studio

Rashaad Newsome, 30, a New York-based visual artist whose work of collage and performance explores representations of the black body in the vogue ballroom scene, hip-hop, and architecture.

Black History Month is every day of my life. But when the holiday comes around, it makes me think of how far we've come as a people. I think about my ancestors and how privileged I am to live my life as an artist. It also brings to mind my time at J. B. Martin Middle School in Paradis, Louisiana, where in history class the history of black folks started and ended with slavery. J. B. Martin left me with a hunger for knowledge of self, one that led me to the Nation of Islam, the Five-Percent Nation, and the Holy Tabernacle Church.

"Black History Month is every day of my life… The search for black history is a never-ending journey."

The thing I got from all those experiences is that the search for black history is a never-ending journey. Black History Month is yet another reminder that there is still work to do. It is also a reminder of the revolting past Americans have and how we need to continue to work towards equality for all so that history doesn't repeat itself.

Photo by Xeno

niv Acosta, 27, performance artist whose most recent performance work, 'Discotropic,' is a mediation on the ways that the black body negotiates space.

Well, personally I don't believe in Black History Month. It's weird to me that this is the way America acknowledges that there is a history of blackness in this country. For me, when Black History Month comes around, it doesn't feel like it because I'm black all year long, and I prefer to celebrate it all year long. It's sort of like black history for white people, or as told by the victor. So, for me, Black History Month is a little bit of a slap in the face in terms of what we deserve. February is the shortest month and also the coldest month in a lot of places. For me, Black History Month would be, like, all of August or all of the summer. I just don't feel like I personally relate to Black History Month anymore in the ways that I feel like I was taught.

"I really want to know, what does Black History Month mean to non-black people?"

As a young black kid growing up in the public school system, our history is limited to slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement. There's a lot that's invisible in the retellings of that version of black history, which subverts a great portion of our heritage. It's sort of antithetical to black history. Black History Month is a way that white culture is giving us a handout, and therefore, it's white culture's only contribution to the discussion and it's lazy and ass-backwards. It's counter to progress, and it's scary. I think people think, Whoa, it's Black History Month, aren't you excited? That's a really troubling thing to me. I don't want to live in a world where we designate a small amount of time a year to an entire history of a people. I really want to know, what does Black History Month mean to non-black people?

Photo by Naima Green

Kimberly Drew, 25, founder of the website Black Contemporary Art and associate online community producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, where she manages the museum's digital presence.

I think Black History Month is an opportunity to spend four weeks really amplifying the work I do the rest of the year. Playing the role of historian and broadcaster, I really take this annual reminder as an opportunity to rise to the occasion of the quiet work. During the month people are paying a little bit more attention to ways in which information about blackness is disseminated online or otherwise. I'm a big champion of personal black history and thinking about how to better record the histories that we have. For me, it's a month about precision.

"People are really thinking about how to put forth the black history that we want. It's super fascinating because black life does go viral."

I think one of the things that's unique about this Black History Month, with respect to the internet right now and Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar's performances, is how to insert as many other black histories into these mega-moments as possible. People are really thinking about how to manipulate these mediums, to put forth the black history that we want. It's super fascinating because black life does go viral.

This Black History Month, people have been tapping into the algorithm, and using it as a medium to put forth both academic and personal information. It's really fascinating to see people pimp Twitter and Facebook. Every other year I've done Black "Herstory" Month on these channels. I love doing a campaign like Black "Herstory" Month because it is an opportunity to #sayhername, and insert narratives that people may not know of women who were on the ground in movements and whose names should be a part of the dialogue.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty

DeRay Mckesson, 30, Black Lives Matter activist and current mayoral candidate for the city of Baltimore

Black History Month to me is a time when we are intentional about having a national conversation about the critical role that black people have played in the making of America. It's when we celebrate black culture. It should also be space where there's an acknowledgment of the trauma of enslavement and planning to correct that. I think now there is a focus on highlighting the everyday heroes of this work. When I think about social media, I try to use it as a platform to amplify the work of other people too. I've learned so much about people like [civil rights leader] Diane Nash over the past 18 months that I've not known much about before.

Photo by Lazina Franklin

Jamal Lewis, 25, filmmaker currently shooting the documentary, No Fats, No Femmes that explores perceptions of race, desire, and body image

Personally, I'm very much interested in black histories that aren't taught, particularly histories of black queer folk whose bodies often fail respectable notions of race, gender, and class. Folks like Marsha P. Johnson and Fannie Lou Hamer. The black histories that we were taught to celebrate are very male-centric. We were conditioned to believe that heroes had to look a certain way. Heroes whose image denotes a certain kind of dignified black person. It's about respectability. In school, I would have loved to celebrate the poet Essex Hemphill. His family has refused the public access to his estate. So there is so much more about Essex's life we may never know. The little information we do know about his life and work revels and reckons with occupying doubly marginalized space. It's about what it means to really walk throughout the world black and gay.

Photo by Mike Jue

Jessica Disu, 27, rapper and founder of the Chicago International Youth Peace Movement who is currently working to help stem the violence on Chicago's Southside

First and foremost, Black History Month should be celebrated every day. To me, Black History Month is a moment of reflection. The 28-day celebration is a reflection of past accomplishments of our black leaders across the diaspora. We need to acknowledge that black history is American history. When we look into our history textbooks, we don't see C.T. Vivan, or Ella Baker. I never read about those leaders until I was older. Black History Month is an opportunity to learn more about black excellence.

"We need to acknowledge that black history is American history."

Growing up, during Black History Month, it was tradition to write an essay about Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. In the fifth grade, Ms. Olgetree said, "You can't write about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks—you have to find someone else." That experience allowed me to do some research, and I learned about Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic signal and gas mask. I look at Black History Month as an opportunity to learn about the past and look toward the future. The month represents a kind of an affirmation.

Photo by Charlotte M. Wales

Mitchell S. Jackson, 40, writer and author of the novel The Residue Years that follows the life of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son in a black neighborhood ravaged by the crack-cocaine epidemic in 1990s Portland, Oregon

Black History Month is a point of pride for me. It's the month when people are focused on highlighting the achievements of people who look like me. I read today that Betty Boop was a black woman. Not that I ever wondered about Betty Boop's race, but it was cool to find out. I especially like to find out the history of some of my favorite writers like James Baldwin or Ralph Elision. On the other hand, I also think, Well, damn, what about the other 11 months? Why are we not highlighting the achievements equally the rest of the year? Sometimes, I find myself being real ambivalent about it. I also think about this idea of blackness and where it came from. Black History Month is rooted in a certain idea of blackness, and it gives me pause when I start to consider who made that up. We came over here as Africans, so how did we get to this?

"I also think, Well, damn, What about the other 11 months? Why are we not highlighting the achievements equally the rest of the year?"

So on one hand, I do want to highlight the achievements of the people who have come before me. But then I also think you can see in Black History Month the power over people who ascribe to that idea of blackness. It's tough because we have been subjugated so long and you want to get that shine, but by accepting that you are also accepting that it's special and not normal. It's like if I have to tell you that Black Lives Matter than they matter less than they should already.

Emerald Garner, 23, is a college student and police-reform activist who's the daughter of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who was choked to death on camera by a New York City police officer.

Black History Month means celebrating black people in any way, form, or fashion. What I usually do every Black History Month is learn something I never know before about my heritage. It's also about celebrating people who made things possible like Malcolm X, Emmett Till, or even now people who are relevant to today, like my father and Mike Brown. I look at those lives and see what we were fighting for 60 years ago is still the fight we are having right now. The fallen victims of our history should be celebrated regardless of race. We have lost a lot of people. We have to honor both the ones who stood up for civil rights and those killed by police misconduct. So personally, Black History Month will always be important to me, forever.

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