The Importance of Black History Does Not End March 1 — Free to Thrive
By: Mira Seyal
Although February’s surge of Black History Month content has begun to fade, racism has not. In many ways, Black History Month is a beautiful celebration of Black history and culture. It is also used to raise awareness and ask important questions about race in America. The annual observance becomes problematic however, when non-Black people disengage Black content with the end of the month as though its relevance is fleeting. Many individuals, companies, and policymakers, are guilty of using Black History Month as a checkbox to divert accountability rather than a reminder to do the hard work of self-introspection. Meanwhile, Americans targeted by racist policies do not have the luxury of treating Black History as momentarily relevant — it is embedded in their American experience.
The Burden of Anti-Racist Labor
Black History Month should be interpreted by non-Black individuals as a reminder to make anti-racism a daily practice. It must require accountability to undo the double burden that Black people carry: existing within an oppressive society, while simultaneously being expected to explain that oppressive experience to friends, coworkers, and companies.
In a 1975 panel discussion at Portland State University, Toni Morrison describes the toll this burden takes on the Black body:
It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Several movements have risen out of the double burden that Morrison and others call attention to. The Nap Ministry, an Atlanta-based organization founded by Tricia Hersey advocates rest as a form of resistance. For Hersey, rest “is key to our movement for Black liberation,” because it “disrupts and pushes back and allows space for healing, for invention, for us to be more human.” It also allows Black individuals to disrupt the historical narrative that Black history starts with slavery, ends with today’s grind culture, and describes Black laborers as human machines because “rest is… undoing part of that history, and it’s allowing us to connect to our deepest selves.”
Anti-Racism and Human Trafficking
Understanding racist history and policies is necessary to understanding who is trafficked and why so many survivors can’t get justice. Nationally, despite being only 13% of the population, African Americans make up 40% of human-trafficking survivors. Moreover, Black children represent 53% of all juvenile prostitution arrests. Black people make up a disproportionate amount of trafficking survivors because of racist policies in areas like housing, healthcare, foster care, education, and detention. When we understand that a disproportionate percentage of trafficking survivors and incarcerated persons are Black, while those who make up the justice system are mostly white, it becomes clear why it is so critical that non-Black persons take on the burden of anti-racist labor. We expect those at the brunt end of racist policies to fight for justice, while those who make up the justice system get a free pass.
How Can Non-Black People Turn Anti-Racism into a Daily Practice?
Rather than use Black History Month as a tool for momentary engagement, non-Black persons should observe the month by reflecting on their relationship to anti-racism and recommitting to anti-racist practice every day, in all aspects of life. We’ve created a list of ways in which non-Black individuals can practice anti-racism and bring the conversation into white spaces, thereby shifting the burden of emotional and physical labor. This list is a great step towards cultivating a daily practice of anti-racist work.
Black history is so much more than slavery and struggle. This list provides an introductory snapshot of Black history as many things — powerful, beautiful, and intersectional to name a few. Because educating ourselves about the Black experience should be a year-round practice, we invite you to keep adding to this list. Join the conversation and let us know what books you’re picking up, what you got from them, and how you’re incorporating what you learn into your anti-racist practice!
- Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era
- Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle
- Ta-Nehishi Coates, Between the World and Me
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
- Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Love & So Much More
- C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
- Jesmyn Ward, Sing Unburied: Sing
Buy your next read from a Black-owned bookstore. Because of the pandemic, many Black-owned bookstores across the country have made their collections available for purchase online.
Speaking of buying Black, the next time you go to make an Amazon purchase, try shopping local and Black-owned instead. We Buy Black allows you to find everyday goods from laundry detergent to craft supplies that come from Black-owned brands. EatOkra is an app you can download to find Black-owned restaurants across the US. Anti-racist work is inseparable from disrupting the inequitable flow of capital — mindful spending is thus essential to anti-racist work.
Practice and Engage
This is the most important step. True anti-racist work involves daily practice. Anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes that this is not as easy as just reading or changing spending habits, “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Anti-racism also involves creating dialogue within white spaces. Sometimes those conversations can be tricky. For white folks, anti-racist work involves reckoning with privilege and can bring up disagreements or feelings of guilt. It’s important to remember that these feelings are okay and part of the process of changing racist narratives. When white folks do this work themselves, they take on the labor of anti-racism. As Robin DiAngelo reminds white folks, “The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out-blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”
About the Author: Mira Seyal is the Development Assistant at Free to Thrive. She creates written and visual content, offers administrative support, helps maintain donor relations, and develops creative ways to increase funding and membership. Mira also runs the team’s social media pages.
Originally published at https://www.freetothrive.org on March 3, 2021.