Did you know the Playboy bunny costume, that iconic bodysuit with the accompanying ears, was designed by a black woman named Zelda Wynn Valdes? During the 1940s and 50s, Valdes was the seamstress of choice for the silver screen sirens of that golden age; from Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker, to Mae West and Ella Fitzgerald. On a scale of things to know that might save your life, this little piece of sartorial trivia probably falls in the single digits, but that does not decrease the value of such a cultural achievement. For black people, our imprints on culture have been erased to the point of historical insignificance. This has left us combing through archives to find the stories and experiences that celebrate our genius. That constant archeological dig is exhausting, and, for me, never more so than during black history month.
The word amnesia taken from Greek -a- meaning "without" and -mnesis- meaning "memory" is a psychological condition that much of civilization suffers when it come to black history. I'm not talking about remembering the epic stain on humanity that was slavery; the courage of Turner, Tubman, and Wells; or the civil rights legacy of both Kings, Malcolm, Rustin, and Chisholm. I'm talking about the intentional and severe lack of memory regarding the black folks who achieved greatness even as the only avenues to our survival were compounded by racism, death, and pain.
We will call this Retrograde Amnesia. The inability to retrieve information that was acquired before a particular date, usually the date of an accident or operation. In this case the "accident" being black excellence, and the operation being to cease and desist from highlighting said excellence. When Black History Month rolls around with the "I'm blackity, black black" memes (thanks CB4) and the "Why is there no white history month?" gaslight (where did that question land you, Stacey Dash?), I feel both empowered and overwhelmed by the amount of black history showcased during this time that we are begrudgingly granted to pay homage to the fact that WE ARE HERE. All twelve months of the year I am hyper aware of the amount of space black people are allowed to take up, be it when we mourn or when we celebrate. During Black History Month, I find myself doing both. I am deeply proud of all that has been achieved by black folks in times when their physical, mental, and social safety was in peril. But I mourn for the fact that for every milestone we celebrate there are ten more we will never know about because there has been a systematic and violent erasure of black lives and experiences defined by blackness.
Without your history, it's incredibly difficult to carve your future, and for black people, futures were something we were never meant to have—and we know are still not guaranteed.
In February I get a free anthology filled with black stories. Some short and some long, but compressed within 28 pages—29 every four years—are different chapters, detailing accomplishments achieved by black people throughout the years. I like reading, and this book is always a must-read, but the sad part is, it is digital documents that make up much of this education. Articles found online as you scroll through Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. The information I consume about black history comes not from institutions of higher education, the preschools shaping young minds, or the museums housing artefacts of past decades; it comes from the social media sites which have emerged as digitized versions of school.
I have learned more about black history from social media than I ever did in my years as a student. I guess that's exciting news for social media mavens, but it's an exhausting process of scrolling, reading, and filing. I find myself drained from the amount of information I take in. Information so depressingly obscure and a reminder of how thorough and efficient the process of removing all reminders and evidence of black history was. Without your history, it's incredibly difficult to carve your future, and for black people, futures were something we were never meant to have—and we know are still not guaranteed.
Today I learned about Augusta Savage, the most prolific black female sculptor of the 21st century. Savage's work was known for its intimate and stunning portrayals of black people, and one of her most well-known creations, "The Harp," was commissioned for the 1939 World's Fair. It depicted black people as ascending strings on the instrument, standing proudly with heads held high. Her work brought her media attention, and she was accepted to the Fontainebleau School of the Fine Arts outside of Paris in 1923, but her place was rescinded once the school learned she was black. We know about Degas, Picasso, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and Pollock. These white men are revered figures in an art world that, then and now, does not know nor care to make room for black people. For black women.
These are the exhausting moments of Black History Month. The empathy I feel as I learn about those whose greatness was seen as sub-par because of their blackness. And when empathy is in constant rotation it becomes redundant instead of affirming. Black History Month is such a clear indicator that until black people took it upon themselves to celebrate our humanness, the world was perfectly content to only categorize our lived experiences as one of two things: aggressors and agitators. We were aggressive, so we were slaves. We fought for civil rights, so we were bitter agitators. History has erased our complexity and our rights to be layered, whole, and fragile.
And so when February rolls around, I happily look and absorb all the information I never learned in any curriculum or from any curator. But I inhale deep and exhale heavily because I know in these few weeks I will learn so much about the things we did that we were never supposed to. When we were not allowed. And it is exhausting to be annually made aware of the ways in which my blackness was and is still not seen as worthy of remembrance, documentation, and reverence. To be black, is exhausting.
Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.