Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month
- Posted on January 17, 2020
- Estimated reading time 4 minutes
The links throughout are an effort to share different perspectives. Please take the time to consider the opinions, perspectives, and ideas associated with what it means be to Black in America, why racial self-identification drives American culture, and how different people deal with the topic.
Each year during my Midwestern American grade school experience, we studied Martin Luther King Jr. twice. I Have a Dream was recited countless times in January. In February, we learned that King was a great man who preached peace with Rosa Parks, opposite that of another influential leader, Malcom X. We learned that both men were murdered. Year after year, that was the extent of visibility and representation of Black Americans for my diverse middle-class community.
Black History Month was and continues to be a time for Black Americans to teach themselves about the importance of their presence in the U.S., while most others are introduced to limited information about the role of Africa’s influence in America. My mom would take us to the library, and I recall reading about Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver. Mostly though, my mother preferred that we focus on our own efforts – with the well-known refrain: “You’ll have to work twice as hard…”
It wasn’t until college that I heard teachers use the words “segregation,” “Jim Crow” or “discrimination.” These were terms were regularly used by my African-American Studies professors during lessons on the Poor Peoples Campaign started by Dr. King, or the introduction to the opposing viewpoints of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. African American Vernacular English was formally introduced. I learned from Eddie Glaude, Cornel West and Toni Morrison that Africans in America are a complex group of people, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no exception. In fact, he was especially complex.
In this time when the term “Inclusion & Diversity” has become ubiquitous, I believe we have an opportunity to enhance our practice and understanding of Black History Month. The celebration of excellence and the articulation of the influence of Pan Africanism in the U.S. should be our focus. I am working with my own children’s educators and administrators to ensure that they teach the students about Ida B. Wells and Katherine Johnson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Duke Ellington. People of African descent have been extremely influential to the American way of life for many generations, long before and after Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Movement.
Culturally, we look to our artists, athletes and politicians to impress upon us our American identity. Americans are American because of the media and entertainment we consume, the arts we enjoy, the books we read, the politicians we vote for and the organizations we give our time and money to. Today, we bestow power to American cultural icons by allowing them to command their name. Many People of the African Diaspora in America are among the most influential of our time, recognized by a single name: Jordan, Beyoncé, Obama, Chappell, Rihanna, LeBron, Ali, Venus and Serena, Basquiat, Biggie, Prince. People like Lori Lightfoot, Cory Booker, John Legend, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kamala Harris, Jacquelyn Serwer and Ashley James are names that command respect, honor and prestige as they excel in their fields to advance American culture and global standing. They influence the current generation to be better, dream bigger, reach higher – having been influenced or encouraged by people like Harold Washington Hiram Revels, Ray Charles, Edward Bouchet, and Lonnie G. Bunch III. These are the names, along with so many more, that can be celebrated, promoted, researched and remembered along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Inclusion & Diversity” has served to shine a light on the traditionally underserved, historically discriminated against and currently underrepresented groups around the globe; now people’s stories are being told in the safe space of corporate offices, hallways and happy hours. The celebration of influence is a concept that I believe benefits all Americans. Our history is the shared story of the accomplishments of all people working toward a common goal of making home the best place in the world for their friends, families and legacy.
My belief is that we can all join with our colleagues who self-identify as African, American, African American, West Indian, Caribbean, Afro-Latinx, Black or Other (I’m sure I’m missing some, forgive me) to ask about their heroes, to be empathetic to their upbringing, to find inspiration in their stories, in their differences and in their excellence.
As we head into February 2020, I hope to INSPIRE you to be an ally.