FEB 24, 2022
Broadening the lens of Black History Month
Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50-yard dash at a track meet in Madison Square Garden in 1961. (Library of Congress)
I recall when I first really became aware of Black History Month: In my elementary school, the occasion was marked by an all-school assembly, and some students — including me — were selected to dress up as a Black historical feature. I wanted to be Wilma Rudolph, the record-breaking Olympic sprinter. But another student chose her first, so I was abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer Sojourner Truth. I recall sitting on the stage, dressed in a long frock, waiting to recite a short bio of Truth in the first-person, surrounded by classmates depicting Arthur Ashe, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and others.

At the time, it felt wonderful to me to learn of these great Black Americans. But as years passed, I grew frustrated by the commemoration: Why is it the shortest month of the year? Why are the same handful of Black Americans featured in most celebrations? Are we to be honored only when we fight for our own rights, often at the expense of our own freedom, our own bodies, our own lives? Or when we are the first to do the things we should all be able to do?

I am pondering these questions again as another historic first is set to take place at the close of Black History Month 2022: the nomination of the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. I wrote about how the nominee will face an exceptionalism paradox: She will have to disprove the notion that her very nomination is an act of undeserved affirmative action by touting her stellar qualifications, when we all already know the fact she has made it to this position means she has spent her whole life overcoming barriers not faced by her white, male counterparts. She will be superqualified.

She’ll be seen as a hero and stand with the Rudolphs and Truths and Bannekers of Black history. But why do we see and celebrate our heroes through such a narrow lens?

In a thoughtful New York Times essay, Esau McCaulley describes how this framing may give Black Americans heroes, but it also “left me with a feeling that there was a long list of things Black people had never done, and my job was to find one of those things and check it off the list.”

“Then we could stand before the world and say: We have done all the things. Can we have justice now?” McCaulley writes.
Black American troops board a train in Fort Hayes, Ohio, during World War II. They were segregated in all branches of the military based on the belief that they were less capable than white service members. (Library of Congress)
This made me think of all the nameless Black heroes who built our nation. The enslaved individuals whose labor built our monuments, including the U.S. Capitol and White House. The brave service people who fought for our nation, including my great, great, great grandfather, Henry Crenshaw, who was born into enslavement but fought in the Union Army during the Civil War to earn his emancipation. The factory workers, like three of my grandparents who migrated to Michigan from Georgia, Arkansas, and Iowa to work in Detroit’s auto manufacturing plants. 

People like my father, who spent his entire career in a building trades union fighting for better wages and benefits so families like mine could enjoy a middle-class life. And my mother, who devoted her life to raising six children and sacrificed so we would never know the poverty she was born into. These Black people are the fibers that helped hold our nation together. Their names aren’t on any plaques, and children won’t be dressing up as them for school assemblies. But they are what our history is made of.
(Globe Staff)
Culture in context
Brian Flores raised his arms during an AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
I love pro sports. Well, I did. And I love Mary J. Blige. I still do. But the allegations in former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL, which paints a vivid picture of an organization that profits off the labor of Black bodies while systematically denying Black coaches and other staffers of opportunities to lead, made the Super Bowl, halftime show included, a no-go for me. But there is a solution that could win former fans like me back: Black team ownership. How do we get there? Read my column
What we’ve been up to
Be sure to sign up for The Emancipator’s YouTube channel here and watch Dr. Ibram X. Kendi break down Why White Supremacy Is the Ultimate Diversion and activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome explain Why The Revolution in America Isn't Over.

Are reparations for Black Americans radical or routine? Our co-editor in chief, Deborah D. Douglas, moderated a conversation with Professors Linda Bilmes and Cornell William Brooks at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics to discuss their findings from a new study showing the United States has both the means and responsibility to compensate Black Americans for slavery-related and racial harms. Watch it here

ICYMI, our co-editors in chief hosted the fifth edition of “Black News Hour” and chatted with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Emerson College Professor Jabari Asim, author of "Yonder: A Novel." 

Also, you should register now for the final installment of the Boston Globe’s Black History Month Film Festival. My colleague, Jeneé Osterheldt, will discuss how she worked with filmmakers to bring her vision, “A Beautiful Resistance,” to life in full, living joy and color. More here.
Until next time,

Kimberly Atkins Stohr
Senior opinion writer and columnist
The Boston Globe
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