Yesterday morning my son greeted me with a question, and our ensuing conversation was short but provocative.
“Mom did you know it’s Black History Month?”
“Yeah. What should we do?” I was pretty much a deer in headlights, wondering if I was going to get called out.
He shrugged. “I guess we can just be ourselves.”
He turned his attention back to online school while I went downstairs to make my green smoothie, brain whirring like the blades of our Ninja pro.
I have never willingly made a big deal about Black History Month. Consequently, I’ve also been a bit blasé about it with my children. This might be surprising given that I am a black woman who for the past twelve years has been living in various societies where people who look like us are minoritized.
Smoothie in hand, I contemplated the root of my ambivalence about this one month. I landed on three things: Identity. Discomfort. And a fear of not getting it right.
Let me explain.
Everyone has an identity comprised of visible differences like race, and invisible ones like religious background.
I can list many components of my identity: woman, mother, extrovert… but a most important one is that I come from an island in the Caribbean Sea. To be precise, I am Jamaican.
I was born in Jamaica and lived there for many years. I didn’t grow up as part of a minoritized group. I didn’t have a preoccupation with my ‘blackness’ at the forefront of my identity. Despite our colonial past and its legacy of colorism and classism, I did not feel disadvantaged because of my hue. I was at home and I belonged.
Immersed in my ‘Jamaicanness’, celebrating Jamaican history was a daily event as natural as breathing. From the first inhabitants encountered by Christopher Columbus, to the enslavement of African people and their journey to our shores, to the fight for freedom, to becoming a melting pot of many nations, to claiming independence, and becoming an international brand synonymous with music, dance, cuisine and athletic prowess, I embraced it all.
Perhaps the closest thing to Black History Month for me as a child was the public holiday in October when we recognized our National Heroes – fierce warriors for freedom from slavery, both physical and mental.
When I migrated to live in the US, I struggled to reconcile with how Black History Month applied to me. Just speaking about it made me feel self-conscious. In my mind it was something that America and other countries had to observe because they grappled with ever-present racism.
In my first year, I accepted the task to help organize an event for the occasion. I was one of less than a handful of Black employees at the office and I did my best to navigate my discomfort. We planned a celebration of the Caribbean region during a cocktail hour –booked a steel pan player, asked the caterer to provide an ‘island menu’ and then delivered a talk celebrating Caribbean heritage and our business operations throughout the region.
No mention of oppression, inequality, inequity or injustice. Everyone was happy. We danced. We toasted. We laughed.
Looking back, all I can say is: What. Were. We. Thinking.
The following week, my friend invited me to a lunchtime event taking place at another company in Miami. I thought it would be a good opportunity to see how other offices observed the occasion. The keynote speaker led a powerful, personal conversation that went straight to the heart of racial injustice in America and left the employees in the packed cafeteria with an unmistakable call to action.
For me, it was an uncomfortable awakening. This white, middle-aged man had made me deeply aware of something that I had been denying – my life was different now. My identity as a Jamaican was invisible. I was now a black woman, part of a minoritized group.
Fear of not getting it right
Okay. I now had a new identity to add to my other identities, but I wasn’t sure what to do with that realization. I didn’t feel oppressed. I didn’t plan to start binge watching Roots. I didn’t know how to become an activist. What was I supposed to do in February?
Over the years, my children did projects and activities at school to ground them in the stories of black American leaders and icons such as Dr. Mae C. Jemison, Muhammad Ali, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Born in the US, my children identified as Americans. This was their history, and I was learning more about it because of them than they were learning because of me. So, I didn’t interfere because I wasn’t sure of what I had to offer. I let them share with me what they learned at school and each February came and went.
Where do I stand now?
After a slightly sleepless night and some self-examination I am reassured. Yes, I do celebrate Black History at home. How could I not? I do it every single day.
There have been signature moments like visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. or the Nelson Mandela exhibition in London and Nottinghill Carnival. There have also been tough discussions after watching movies like Just Mercy, or painful moments talking about what happened to Trayvon Martin and George Floyd.
But the most important thing is how we live our daily lives – our beliefs and values, our faith, the stories we tell, the leaders we quote, the music we listen to, our food, the books we read, the films we watch, our time with extended family… our history and culture are all blended into who my children are and who I am.
Maybe I could make a thing out of February and be more intentional about unearthing stories of black excellence and watching films and documentaries, but it is far more likely that we will do as my son so wisely suggested. We will be ourselves.
Please share your comments on how you are celebrating Black History Month 2021. Thanks for stopping by. Remember to visit again soon. I post articles each week.
© Arlene Amitirigala 2021. All Rights Reserved.