University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Black History Month: time for a makeover?

Kat Cheeseman

ByThe Badger

Oct 20, 2015

Black History Month has become a highly contested event. The narrative usually sways between the view that the campaign is dismissive and ignorant towards black communities and their struggles, to arguing that it is a commendable effort to remind us of the history and trajectory of black resistance.

In the midst of this debate, some voices are validated and others are silenced.

As a white person, my authority on this topic is admittedly and rightfully moot. Yet if we consider the history, it is easy to see that white people have generally been quick to ascertain truths about black experiences, which inevitably perpetuates racist, white supremacist ideals.

This is not my aim and in no way do I claim to be a point of authority on this subject. From this perspective, I hold that Black History Month still holds promise and can be an avenue to inspire change.

It’s an accessible vehicle that can induce dialogue, discussion, action and resistance across varying socio-cultural groups. It also challenges those of us who have not experienced systemic racism to conceptualize newer, more relevant ways to make waves within our respective communities.

Talking about Black History Month and its enduring relevance can be a brilliant opportunity to learn how we can better participate and support this movement that aims to bring greater social change.

Having said this, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how the campaign frames and addresses key, contemporary issues in black communities.

Recently certain issues within black communities have been deemed unimportant, or worse, have simply been cast to the sideline. I am referring to the rising violent marginalization of trans black people, such as the murders of Kiesha Jenkins and Shade Schuler; the systemic exclusion of disabled people of colour; the shaming of fat female black bodies; the frequent reference to and use of modernized tropes of slave ideals in media; the commodification of black bodies in the prison-industrial complex — and many more issues.

Unfortunately, this is a myopic and limited list of the current struggles, but these issues are starkly different than they were half a century ago.

Resisting systemic racism in 2015 has a radically different visage than it did in the 1960s. While it is imperative to acknowledge the roots and seeds of black history, it seems there is great risk in focusing solely on the heroes of previous times.

In quoting Martin Luther King and using Malcom X as the campaign’s mascot year after year, the valiant voices that are working, struggling and resisting the distinct flavour of today’s racism are forgotten.

In the face of globalization, hyper-capitalism and irrepressible technological growth, activism has quite a different melody than when it rallied for Angela Davis’ prison release.

It seems to me this is an appropriate time to embrace this shift and recognize our modern-day heroes, the ones mobilizing and defying acts of racism in their own corners of the world.

Black History Month adverts should be laden with people like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — the three women who launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Or perhaps the director and writer Cecile Emeke, who is creating mediums that give black people a space to reclaim their own experiences.

Whatever the name and cause may be, their resistance is worthy of being recognized. Let’s all relish the power of the celebrities of the civil rights movement, letting it inspire us beyond just one month.

In the end, it is not so much about forgetting the legacy of the activists that stood before our time but rejoicing in the rising flames amongst us today.


Nicole Lachance

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply