For the entirety of my (23 year-old Black female) life, the observance of Black History Month (previously more commonly referred to as African American History Month) has been routine. It was always mentioned and I understood that it was holiday established due to historical events-similar to say, the Fourth of July. However, unlike this holiday, my teachers often (for whatever reason) did not teach the history behind Black History Month. While the importance of the Fourth of July could be communicated by my teachers with clarity, assurance, and excitement, Black History Month felt like it was being included because our curriculum mandated it.
As I have gotten older, I have noticed that the routine of celebration has moved out of the school setting and more into other areas of society. For example, workplaces, advertisements, streaming services, and clothing brands will attempt to recognize Black History Month. I have also started paying more attention to how other Black individuals feel about the holiday, because when I look back on my experiences with it, I am overall dissatisfied.
Over the past few years, I have noticed a trend (especially on social media platforms) that suggests many Black individuals are not happy with how we currently celebrate Black History Month. The content below summarizes a conversation I had with Patricia Houston, a Black leader within my organization, discussing this phenomenon and her personal thoughts and beliefs tied to it.As a disclaimer, neither one of us are attempting to speak for the entire Black community when expressing our thoughts and opinions. Any ideas, beliefs, opinions, or experiences shared are not to be interpreted as general statements for the Black community as a whole.
Before diving into the questions from the interview, I want to provide a little bit of background on who Patricia is. Patricia Houston described herself as identifying as Black and Native American. Patricia said she became aware of her Indigenous heritage more recently. Therefore, she has grown up predominately identifying with and celebrating her Blackness. However, she has been actively seeking more knowledge and experiences within her Indigenous culture as well. Some of the other intersecting identities she provided include being a woman, heterosexual and a pastor’s wife, a plus-sized and non-disabled adult, and middle class.
Patricia’s personal and professional background have always been immersed in the Black community. When I asked Patricia about her work with equity, diversity, and inclusion, her immediate response was “if I thought anything it would be… life experiences…” Patricia grew up on the Northeast side of Wichita, a predominately Black area. She attended a predominately Black school and experienced the transition that came with desegregating schools. She recalled “not having a true racist experience until we started melting schools together.”
She has also taken it upon herself to be an advocate for the empowerment and recognition of Black individuals in her professional life. These include: focusing on the Black community and equity training while working for the City of Wichita; promoting equitable legislature while serving on the Kansas African American Coalition; working with voter registration; being denied promotions and knowing it was due to discrimination while working at the aircraft plant; and her current role as the Director of Organizational Culture at the Community Engagement Institute in which her focus is promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.
While reflecting on her previous experiences and injustice she has faced in the workplace, Patricia stated “I dealt with that over and over again of being passed over for promotions or being good enough to work in that position, but not good enough to get the title… I’ve had that experience and I understand it and I see it. I can see it and I think that’s one of the key things is being able to identify when those things are happening.” Another common experience Patricia shared from her professional background was being tokenized and how it sometimes gave her influence, but also how it overall felt unjust.
Before asking about Black History Month specifically, I wanted to get an idea of how Patricia celebrates her Blackness and other Black individuals in general. When I asked Patricia about this, she stated she “grew up with a true sense of self.” She explained how even after she began experiencing racism in school, it was not easily recognized and could lead to a negative self-image for Black students. Therefore, Patricia said “Celebrating my Blackness is that I believe we are beautiful… and that we’re smart and wise” She described promoting, encouraging, and empowering Black individuals as ways she celebrates Black people as a whole.
When asked about her feelings toward Black History Month, Patricia stated:
“I can’t negate the reason why [Black History Month] materialized. It was a lot of fighting and wanting it and needing it to validate who we are in our place in history and how important it is for us to be in history and a part of that history because we were a part of that history.
… we are part of the history and you cannot write us out.
… I wholeheartedly believe that I think now it has become so redundant and done over and over again… there’s no creativity… We still go back and grab those same people and bring their stories forth and do that work and kind of see it as checking the box okay we did our black history post… So one of the things that I like to do with black history is let them know that we’re still writing history… We’re still being the first in things were still… doing great things that become history as time progressed and making sure that we are still a part of that history and highlighting that in the work.
…I think there’s some real conversations we need to have about black history..”
I asked Patricia if she had any other specific criticisms of how Black History Month is currently celebrated. She asked in response “Do we want white people celebrating black history?… I struggle with it being genuine… I would rather you be genuine in your inclusion of us than to patty cake and check the boxes and think that that’s okay, that we are okay, that you have filled up facebook.”
She also stated “I would love it if American history intertwined all history.” She explained that ideally, American history books would paint a clear, wholistic, picture of history that naturally includes the Black experience. She described that it shouldn’t be reserved to specific sections of the text or to a specific month of the year. In general, instead of Black American History being captured in a month, it should be captured and appreciated as American history. Patricia expressed that doing this would be a major indicator of movement in the right direction for her. “I think one of my signals saying that America got it is them rewriting their history books.”
She also provided more context surrounding her claims of feeling the celebration of the month has become redundant. She explained her feelings about America hyper-focusing on specific notable Black figures while negating others. She also described how this can lead to the original message of these notable Black figures being misconstrued over time. She used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. “We’ll go and get his positive quotes of togetherness, his quotes that people have created that says these are the main things he says. But then we forget how he addressed the current discouraging conditions and all the other stuff that he talked about that was even more impactful.”
I followed this up by asking Patricia how we can possibly utilize Black History Month to recognize and address the past and current forms of racism in America while also recognizing and celebrating Black Americans today. Patricia responded “really being able to call out those systems of oppression right? I think you have to truly draw the line from there to here” She described that’s important because “when you are growing up in this system… those who are not oppressed do not see how it oppresses. We don’t see it, we don’t see that the original intent of that system, law, or policy way back when it had racist intent” She explained how this leads to overlooking racism and its impacts in current society; causing society to overlook the importance of understanding and recognizing the Black experience.
I asked Patricia about specific things she feels we should be doing during Black History Month. Patricia said “I would like to see us focus on the laws that govern this nation.” Patricia explained this is because everything stems from the laws and policies of the nation.
She also stated “I would love to see us focus until we move the needle don’t jump from place to place, Let’s focus and let’s get a plan and let’s move the needles.” As a possible starting point, she would like to see the Black community and allies to put efforts towards “really putting more people into legislation that will stand on their own and really be like, no, we’re not, we’re not doing this.” Patricia also said “I want to see us provide grant funding for our BIPOC people who are working in our communities.” She described that she wants to see more funding provided to BIPOC communities, efforts, and organizations on a societal level but also wants to see more Black individuals investing into the Black community. If you are not always able to invest money, Patricia explained “we need to be more mindful of what’s going on in our communities and build our own” In other words, the investment does not always have to be financial; it can be through action and a personal commitment to empowering the Black community in any way possible.
I then asked Patricia, how can we ensure this month is not utilized as a feel good opportunity for white people or society as a whole to use as a means to help alleviate them from their white guilt. Patricia stated
“That’s a loaded question and me, as a black person, I have to change my perspective. I have to change my expectations. And so when I come with the expectations that you ought to celebrate it or you ought to, you ought to post about it or you ought to do this then I need to check my, my thoughts. What does that, what does that give me if I’m going to make them do it?…
Patricia also emphasized the month should not be a feel good opportunity for Black people either. “So when it becomes a feel good for you it is because you are not connected right?” She explained Black individuals should avoid partaking in activities that only serve to help them feel better instead of promoting actual change through action. She described she feels the Black community can sometimes partake in feel-good opportunities to feel they have “done their part.” As Patricia stated “No, you’re doing your part every day. You need to do your part every day… being a part of those kind of movements that are trying to move you move us in the right direction is what we need to be doing and it doesn’t feel good.”
I asked Patricia about her thoughts surrounding how we could promote healing and self-care for Black individuals during the month. Patricia expressed we need to start supporting each other, within our own communities more. She also stated “We don’t talk to a therapist, we don’t take care of our bodies or don’t do that. And so sometimes we need to recognize that it’s okay to do those things in the black community… We need to start recognizing that it’s okay to take care of ourselves and to and to offer those opportunities for healing.” She also explained how often times the support we need can exist within our community. “It is not all about going to a Caucasian person for your support.”
To conclude the interview, I asked Patricia what the hardest part about discussing issues around race in America was. I ask her this because I feel it is important to remember these topics apply to real people with real life experiences. It can be difficult for individuals to discuss and that should not be neglected or taken for granted. Patricia described
“I don’t want pity… I don’t want a handout… But I think my hardest part is that people don’t understand, they don’t understand… and sometimes they don’t want to get it.
I struggle with wanting you to know my story because of when you’re not going to understand it, or you are not in a place to do anything about it or maybe want to do anything about it.
I struggle with the sadness of our history.
…it hurts because you start remembering all the times you were passed over. You start remembering the conversations you had with Caucasian bosses that had less experience than you had and how they struggled with supervising and how they would say insensitive things and those kind of things… you can get into a place where you’re happy in your life, you know, and you’ve forgotten those things. But there are things that come up in your life to take you back and it causes sadness. It causes frustration. It causes you to, to think about where your life could be if you had just been given the opportunity years and years ago.
The feeling of regret, the feeling of frustration, the feeling of sadness. All of this comes back when you talk about race in America because I’ve lived it…”
Thank you to Patricia Houston for sharing her story and opinions. For more information on support groups near you, visit our “Find a Support Group” page!