The Beauty, Struggle, and Resilience of Black History
​​​​​​​Matthew Oakland, upper school associate teacher and admissions assistant

Black history. So much beauty, struggle, resilience, fortitude, oppression, cultural richness, and triumph sits within all that this term entails. As well, within a nuanced understanding of Black history (speaking specifically to the U.S. Black experience), comes an awareness of the failures and purposeful incongruencies of our nation’s democratic project. A land supposedly oriented towards equality for all, but still grappling with many forms of increasing inequity. A land where all are promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but wherein many of our citizens are marginalized from any true sense of opportunity. Black History is both a veil to see the indomitable power of the human spirit and the ability of the most marginalized to make magic out of little to nothing, as much as a mirror for our own imperfections as members of this diverse community we call the United States. 

So what does Black History Month mean to me? It is as much a celebration of my history—through figures like Assata Shakur, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, the Combahee River Collective, Bayard Rustin, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X—as it is a needed reminder that such traditions live on. That inequity—often inequities that have stemmed from our nation’s past systems of oppression (see: slavery → convict leasing → Jim Crow → War on Drugs → mass incarceration of mainly Black and Brown folk)—are still present in our contemporary context, and still just as important to confront.

Given this, to a certain extent, I actually struggle with the term Black history. In terms of its connotative meaning, “Black history” sounds like something relegated to the past. That these things have already happened, and as such are worth studying, but not to the extent of implementing more critical analysis and/or creating a more radical praxis based on such knowledge. Or, that Black history is only the study of crystallized moments like Tulsa 1921 or Trayvon Martin 2012, which obscures how our contemporary forms of systemic racism are undergirded by centuries-old, ever-evolving, systems of oppression.

So when I think of Black history, I don’t think of a static past or of solely abhorrent moments of human disregard; instead, I think of a vibrant and alive repository of knowledge, of protest, of civil disobedience, of music, of celebration. I think about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ways that such organizing has propelled conversations around police brutality, equity, and forms of racism to the forefront of our national consciousness. I think about Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Parliament Funkadelic, Billie Holliday, Al Green, Janele Monáe, James Brown, and the multiplicity of Black artists that situate themselves within the tradition of radically creative and socially-conscious oriented artists. I think about cookouts, long days sitting in the sun and laughing with friends and family (and people who are such close friends you call them aunt and uncle anyway). I think of videos of #Blackjoy. I think of using sage and herbs to ward off evil in a house, windows and doors flung open, to bring in light. I think of my mom, who, on days without much in the fridge, could create a dish so delectable you would think she had made it hundreds of times before (maybe it was already within her?). These are the moments, memories, banks of knowledge, my own form of collective consciousness, that I consider to be Black History. 

So, to raise the central question again: What does Black History Month mean to me? It is the realization that the past, present, and future are constantly interconnected, and that traditions and magic and resilience live within my DNA. It is radically envisioning the futurities that will contain possibility and positivity and prosperity for Black people, and all those who continue to be marginalized. It means fighting on the side of freedom; being not just non-racist, but anti-racist. Black History Month is alive. Black History Month means there is no freedom, until we are all free.

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