It’s tricky for a white woman to write about Black History Month because I don’t want to come off as being more knowledgeable than I am or be accidentally disrespectful. But it’s important to me that I honor this month and show up as the ally I want to be, so here I am, sharing what I’ve found with you.
I have long thought of myself as a person who rejects racism, but I’m becoming a little better schooled in my own accidental disrespect. I got started a little early on Black History Month by reading the bestseller The Black Friend; On Being A Better White Person by Frederick Joseph last month. Quite a few parts of the book were revelations to me, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
I learned after reading it that it was written with a young adult reader in mind, but, except for some musical references that flew over my head, I’d say that its message resonates clearly to all ages.
It was certainly an I-can’t-put-it-down book, and I read it in a weekend. I saw my well-intentioned (yet misguided) self quite a few times in its pages; for example, “I don’t see color” is a phrase I will never think, much less say, ever again.
It’s not enough to just be allies or non-racist ourselves
Another thing I learned is that it’s not enough not to be racist (although it’s a pretty great start). We need to actively and proactively chip away at all of the racism we start to recognize when we educate ourselves through generous books like Joseph’s, and call out racist behavior when we see it. I’m incredibly grateful that Joseph was willing to be a guide, and that imprint Candlewick Press saw value in this endeavor.
I’m moving on next to How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi which I have no doubt will be another useful guide on my journey.
What are nonprofits doing?
How wonderful it is that we work in a sector whose sole focus is to lift people up and make our world a better, more just place! We do our own work on the individual level, this month and hopefully for each month afterwards, to understand our own biases and break them down. We do it on an institutional level, too, because in my research personally and for this article I found that there are so many organizations in the nonprofit sector sharing knowledge and/or providing a stage for the arts and culture during Black History Month! It’s impossible to name them all, but I wanted to feature a few that I thought you might want to visit virtually with me.
Fascinating Finds in America’s Attic
For example, speaking of Ibram Kendi, thanks to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), this past Tuesday I watched a wonderful celebration of the new book that he and Dr. Keisha Blain edited called 400 Souls; a community history of African America 1619-2019. What an amazing concept: they asked 90 contributors to provide a work each describing a five-year period between 1619 and 2019. Through essays, short stories, personal histories, and poetry each contributor brings each half-decade to life.
In Tuesday evening’s discussion, four of the contributors were featured with Kendi and Blain to discuss the book. I was riveted by Pulitzer-Prize winning professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s discussion of her contribution about Sally Hemings: enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, Hemings was taken by Jefferson to Paris when the French Revolution broke out. As she heard cries of freedom, equality, and liberty shouted in the streets, Hemings weighed the awful choice of staying in Paris as a free woman – and leaving behind the rest of her family enslaved in Virginia.
You can listen to the recording of this wonderfully entertaining evening discussion here. I highly recommend it. (and there’s another book that’s going on my to-read list!)
As you can imagine, the NMAAHC will be sponsoring a wide range of virtual events this month for all ages, too. I’ll be back again with them later this month because my eyes tracked directly to the word “probate” on their events page. If you’re someone who has a side hustle or interest in genealogy, certified genealogical lecturer LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson will share her knowledge on using probate records to find enslaved ancestors and those who were slave holders in this free lecture.
The National Portrait Gallery is partnering with other Smithsonian museums to discuss how historical objects from their respective collections speak to today’s social justice issues. This month their focus is on race and medicine, and in this free event (among several works of art and artifacts) they’ll highlight a portrait of Charles R. Drew, a renowned African American surgeon and researcher in the field of blood transfusions who developed large-scale blood banks for use during World War II.
What on Earth would we do without public media?
There is a host of great media highlighting Black innovators, entertainers, and leaders, and as you’d expect PBS is a great place to find them. Their Black History Month-dedicated web page features a ton of limited series, films, and documentaries for free. And it’s not just non-fiction, either: as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Masterpiece is featuring The Long Song, a 3-part mini-series based on the award-winning novel by Andrea Levy about the end of slavery in Jamaica.
If you’re a member of your local PBS station, there’s even more on their site and available through Passport, the PBS streaming service that’s free to members (I’m sorry, I know that sounded like an ad, but I’ve been a PBS fangirl since I was six. Maybe younger. I can’t help myself.)
Also, set your reminders and tune into the NPR “Tiny Desk Concerts” this month! There’s a week each per musical genre: week one is Jazz (Wynton Marsalis!); week two is R&B (Meshell Ndegeocello!); Week 3 is Hip Hop (Rae Khalil!); and the last week is “Wildcard Week” (sorry, not familiar with the featured artists but I’ll be tuning in!).
Most colleges and universities are celebrating Black History Month with at least a lecture or event or three. I love how Tuskegee University is celebrating the month with an expansive and free Zoom lecture series on topics ranging from “The Color of Baseball” and “Reggae and Resistance” to “Covid-19 and the African American Community.”
Check out the website of your own alma mater to see what they’re doing, or perhaps a college or university near you. You’ll find celebrations, interesting lectures, discussions, music and more from Oregon on the Pacific to the North Shore of Boston and every place in between to understand exactly why recognizing African American history in America is so important. (And if you don’t find any activities at the website of your alma mater, maybe send them a note of encouragement/expectation.)
Parents and educators, are you looking for a broad-spectrum, well-researched resource guide to teach kids about Black history and anti-racism? The Center for Racial Justice in Education has put together a gorgeous web page that includes hotlinks to books, films, newspaper and magazine articles, activities, and government resources.
One of my favorites was “5 Things Not To Do During Black History Month.” There were a couple of real cringe-worthy examples in the article, but it wasn’t all “yikes!” There was also some very reassuring advice at the end of the article for folks who are eager for examples on how to be good anti-racism advocates.
When a door closes, a window opens
There are sooooo many things that COVID-19 has taken away from us, but one of the things it has given is the opportunity to take advantage of things we never would have been able to before because of geography.
You may not be anywhere near Detroit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the Black History Month activities offered by the Detroit Institute of Arts. Listen to a concert by singer-songwriter Chantae Cann; hang out with Black chefs and mixologists as they put together their favorite foods and drinks; or sign your child up for a free celebration of Black photographers through a series of interactive exhibit/experiences just for kids.
This is just a teeny tiny slice of what I found and I’m really eager to hear about more. Please share below what your nonprofit (or your favorite nonprofit) is doing to celebrate Black History Month, and help steer the rest of us to more great content.