Black History Month is upon us, and if there’s even such a thing as the best time to learn about black people and black culture, it’s during the 28 days of February. People – mostly black people of course – will flood their social media timelines all month with facts about both well-known and little-known black pioneers.
I appreciate the added melanin to my news feeds throughout February, and I never question the genuine desire of those who post to impart knowledge on their peers. But I often question if reading someone’s social post is truly teaching me. The post probably condenses a black hero or heroine’s life into a brief paragraph or minute long, aesthetically pleasing video.
Is being exposed to the major highlights of a black icon’s story enough of an education? No. Will I retain what I read or watch beyond tomorrow or the day after that? I highly doubt it, but I still like my friends’ posts and share my own, too.
Unfortunately, our technological gifts have destroyed our attention spans. We love brevity; we only want to skim; we move on quickly, confident that in glossing over content we gained a general understanding that will get us by.
Is the abbreviated manner in which we absorb content throughout black history month meaningful in more than a symbolic way? Is that manner significantly better than the abbreviated formal education many of us received that almost entirely neglected black history?
We’re Uninformed, Not Hopeless
We complain that the K-12 education system, whether public or private, shortchanged us, and on many fronts, it did. But today, by accepting our social norms, which lull us into a complacency that approves of surface-level understanding, we shortchange ourselves of knowledge, too.
A dab of black history – especially during the shortest month of the year – won’t miraculously make anyone ‘woke’ or capable of realizing how amazing and resilient our people have been – and always will be.
On social media, a few of my friends have challenged others to at least read a book by a black author this month; that’s a step in the right direction. Call me extreme – or a nerd – but that’s only a comfortable, baby step. If we’re really going to celebrate our month, we should do it all out.
If you don’t like reading books, listen to their audio versions or find a collection of short, powerful articles. If you’re a visual learner, you can search for speeches on YouTube, find thought-provoking documentaries or watch impactful movies.
There are few – if any – acceptable excuses for not being a student of black history today other than an acknowledgement that black history just isn’t that important to you.
Building Good Habits
I’m pushing myself to read at least a book a week this month, each by a black author. I’m sharing my personal challenge in an effort to be transparent, not to shame those who don’t try to match or one-up my goal. Reading is an outlet for me, so, by immersing myself in strictly black authors throughout February, I’m trying to reinforce to myself that learning about black history is in fact a priority.
I take the metro to work everyday. I softly play music through my headphones, just loud enough to cancel out noise and take my mind off the train’s funky smells. And whether I’m seated or standing, my face is in a book. For my 30-45 minute ride, I’m mentally in a different world.
If I can, I’ll leave my office for lunch because it allows me to read freely, without thinking about work. When I get on the train to head home in the evening, I’m once again back to reading. And if I’m not too tired late at night, I’ll turn off the TV and my phone to read some more.
Although reading has become a part of my daily life, reading black authors has not, and to be honest, I’ve never seriously considered only reading black authors for an extended period of time. With strict focus on authors that look like me, I wonder what kind of intellectual launchpad black history month could become.
My Black History Month Reads
I started the month by finishing Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. In the book, Stevenson eloquently explains how our criminal justice system unfairly and inhumanely swallows people of color, the mentally disabled and the poor. Through learning about his herculean efforts and the Equal Justice Initiative, I was motivated to, in some way, play my part in making America a more just place.
Now, I’m roughly halfway through The Mis-education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. One of my favorite quotes thus far is, “real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly,” because for me, that’s the simplest way to articulate my desire to read, and it also speaks to my hope that we’ll each push ourselves to learn more so that we can do more.
Soon I’ll read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Naturally, I side more with the teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois: like Du Bois, I was born in the North – I wasn’t born a slave – and I have been fortunate to this point in my life. But I shouldn’t write off Washington’s pragmatic philosophy completely; it’s worth learning about.
By Any Means Necessary, a collection of Malcolm X’s speeches and writings post-Nation of Islam, is also on my list simply because The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley had such a profound impact on me.
And lastly, I’ll read The Fifth Season, a science fiction novel by N.K. Jemisin, which won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016 at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention. A friend, who’s not black, raved to me about the book while trying to convince me to read fantasy novels. He insisted that the fantasy genre stimulates creativity better than others. I was skeptical. He then mentioned that the author was black – immediately the book was added to my black history month list.
I know the books I read this month will expand my perspective. At worst, what I learn will be small talk for a random conversation. At best, it will make me a more critical thinker, a more informed decision-maker and a more confident leader in my communities.