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  • Writer's pictureRa'anaa Brown

XV: The Last Time

“Change is made of choices, and choices are made of character.” —Amanda Gorman

This February how are you observing Black History Month?

Exploiting Black labour? Consuming Black trauma porn and slavery content? Acknowledging anti-Black racism for 28 days? Sorry, 29 days. 

How very colonial of you. 

Your ancestors would be proud. 

As for me dear reader, I’m observing this Black History Month loudly, unapologetically, and as pro-Blackity-Black as I can. I too seek to make my ancestors proud, for we are their wildest dreams, are we not? And so, it is with the strength of my ancestors that I launch into this entry full of hot takes, brutal honesty and a steaming side of the motherfucking truth. 

*Please note that the author is not responsible for any subsequent white guilt, and/or tears. In the event of white guilt, we advise a warm glass of milk, three “I’m an ally’s” and posting a righteous photo of yourself dawning the Black power fist. In the event of white tears, we recommend a complex catchment system to retain those salty droplets and save them for someone who cares. In extreme cases, we highly suggest consuming the tears as this is not the Black exploitation content you have desperately thirsted for, and perhaps your self-produced (and induced) sodium waters will aptly quench your needs.*

What is the meaning of Black History Month? I mean, where did it begin and why? Although I know some of the initial reasoning behind the start of BHM (thanks only to my own curiosity) admittedly, my knowledge of its conception is quite limited. Blame it on our horrendously racist educational system, blame it on my fear of potentially learning of yet another way white people continue to oppress Black folks, or what have you. Regardless of the reasons why, prior to writing this piece I didn’t know enough. 

And so, like the diligent researcher I am, I went to my top and most trusted source, Google (cue dramatic pause). I know, insane, right? But believe it or not, many people don’t know of this platform's existence. I mean why else would white people send me endless inquiries about what Black movies to watch, what Black books to read, what Black historical figures to recognize, what Black artists to know..? 

Surely it can’t be because they expect FREE labour from Black people in their lives? I mean that would be insidious, and dare I say exploitative. Surely they must be unable to access libraries or bookstores? But even if they could, how could Black people expect them to read up on the history that their white ancestors attempted to erase and descendants attempt to ignore? Surely they know how exhausting and problematic it is to be asked endlessly about cultural appropriation when they already know they wrong for wanting cornrows and locs? Surely they know the ignorance behind questions like “Is this racist”. So, they wouldn’t come to us, the Black people of the world unless they believed there were ABSOLUTELY NO options left at their disposal. Surely they would go elsewhere if they knew they could. 

And so dear white people, I am delighted to liberate you from the shackles of harassing Black people (particularly around February for some reason). I am pleased to inform you of the existence of this magnificent search engine: 

GOOGLE, finally a resource more knowledgeable than that one Black person you know.

Now that we’re all on the same page, I digress. Curious about the start of BHM, I pondered on Google one night “When was Black History Month created?” To which this audacious search engine pointed me toward former United States President Gerald Ford. And so I asked myself, Black History Month created by a white man? NOT ON GODS GREEN EARTH. And so, I asked more telling questions, like why? 

As most of us know, Black History Month was created to acknowledge the contributions of Black people across time and space. Unbeknownst to many, is the man behind the month, Carter Godwin Woodson, the father of Black History Month. Born to formerly enslaved parents in West Virginia, Woodson began life as most did in the late 1800s, supporting his family as a coal miner, sharecropper, and through a variety of other odd jobs. It wasn’t until he was 20 years old that he had enough money to enroll in high school, where he graduated in less than two years and went on to become a teacher himself. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in literature at Berea College in 1903, Woodson went on to complete his Master’s of Arts at the University of Chicago in 1908 and his Doctorate of History in 1912 at Harvard University, making him the second Black American to do so after W.E.B. Du Bois.

Three years later he established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (Former Negro Life and History). To this day they exist, pioneering Woodson’s dream of disseminating knowledge about Black history. But, Woodson knew that young Black people of his time were still not being taught nearly enough about their own heritage and the achievements of their Black ancestors. And so, in 1924 he turned to his former fraternity for support in founding the first Negro History and Literature Week. Though a success, Woodson wanted a wider celebration. The week was taken on by the ASALH, and in 1926 they sent out a press release announcing the first Negro History Week. February was strategically selected as it housed both the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two men whose actions have been widely celebrated by Black Americans. (Aside, I won’t go off on a tangent about Lincoln, but watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th for further insight on that clown).

Negro History Week caught on like wildfire and before long the ASALH could barely meet the demand for all the course materials and resources. As the 1940s arrived the week-long events began to be extended longer and longer. Though Woodson died suddenly in 1950, his legacy lived on. United States presidents began to acknowledge the event, and in 1976, 50 years after the first Negro History Week, the ASALH officially made the shift to an entire Black History Month. In so-called Canada, Black History Month wasn’t officially and widely recognized until 1995 following a motion introduced by Dr. Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons. 

But Ra’anaa, you may ask yourselves, so what? I mean Black History Month is still being widely celebrated and acknowledged, right? I tell you this because I want you to see that Black History Month has always been intended as something by us, for us. But, somewhere along the way, it became an exploitative tradition of Black labour. Somewhere along the way, it became an excuse to justify the exclusion of education of Black history and heritage from the “mainstream”, because “well they’ve got an entire month for that.”  I know there isn’t enough time or capacity in school to learn everything there is to know about Black people on these lands, but ask yourself, when have you ever learned about us beyond these 28 days? When have you ever seen society recognize Black people that wasn’t in February or in the wake of a brutal instance of anti-Black racism?

February is perhaps the most harmful time of the year for Black folks because to many people it’s the only time we matter. And the worst part of it all is that Woodson’s dream has been co-opted into an era of people expecting Black folks labour. But why do we do it? Year and year again, why do we push ourselves to host the events, put on the panels, and talk about our ancestors ‘til we’re blue in the face? Because if we don’t, no one else will

I remember the first time I hosted Black History Month programming. It was early 2020 and I was in the second year of my master's. This school year was full of gaslighting when I asked for a Black external supervisor, misogynoir from classmates, and professors, and extreme isolation as I grieved the highly televised murders of Black people across the world. I was researching how architecture affected segregation in the South Side of Chicago. This was the first time in my academic career that I had the space to actually learn about Black people, and of course, it was of my own volition. Inspired by the likes of Fred Hampton and Ida B. Wells, I approached the then Director about architecture-related programming for Black History Month. I was told there was no money left in the cultural committee's budget, and that if I wanted programming I’d have to do it myself. And so I did. 

This is not an isolated instance. Time and time again committees allegedly designed for this sort of thing don’t allot any funds for Black History Month programming, and instead, the task falls on Black students, staff, or faculty. Of course, we’re rarely compensated and half of the time our labour isn’t even acknowledged. And so now as I continue to program events and initiatives for BHM with my comrades at BLM Sudbury, I ask you what’s the difference? I see my peers and I pull together time and time again to put together immaculate programming as VOLUNTEERS. Meanwhile the likes of paid officials at the city, academic institutions, and other groups who claim to be “listening and learning” sit on their asses or ride on our coattails. 

And beyond this, groups who “care” enough to ask to collaborate with us often have the audacity to ask us in January or sometimes as late as February itself. Tell me you only remember Black History Month during Black History Month, without telling me so. Being asked to work on something that close to the month is like a slap in the face. It tells me you don’t think of Black people beyond those 28 days, and can’t even be bothered to set a calendar reminder a few weeks in advance to tell you to get off your ass and do the work. So where does this leave us? Either we bust ass to see these important truths and stories told, or we say fuck you as Black history falls to the wayside. And this is just at an organizational level, let’s talk about the individual. 

I hate to say it, (well no I don’t though I hate to experience it) but white people caucasity is at an ALL-TIME HIGH during the month of February. Y’all really on something else. I cannot recall how many times this month has rolled around and someone has attempted to innocuously slide into my DMs asking what movies to watch or books to read about Black people. Do I look like Google? Leave me alone! I’m sure some folks mean well, but if you considered for five minutes how exploitative that was, or I don’t know maybe how bothersome it is to ask anything of Black people during a month that’s supposed to be about our thrivance, maybe you’d think twice about sliming your way into our inboxes. 

But Ra’anaa, maybe some people are just misguided but want to be better allies. How can they help? How can they celebrate Black heritage meaningfully and respectfully?  I’m glad you asked! In my final act of labour this month, I am generously providing you with my Top Tips to Observing Black History Month (in a way where Black people won’t want to slap you upside the head). 

  1. If you think it may be racist, it’s racist. DO NOT ASK A BLACK PERSON ABOUT IT. I promise you we want to be left the fuck alone

  2. No, watching 12 Years a Slave does not make you anti-Black, but if you’re only consuming content like that and the Birth of a Nation during February, I’m sure the Grand Wizard has a nice white hood with your name on it 

  3. Wish every month was Black History Month? In our house it is! And it can be in yours too if you just get up off that butt and educate yourself. Educating yourself, it’s been hip since the beginning of time! Now available online. 

  4. Start thinking about BHM 2025 now, I know we are.

  5. Remember, privilege is when equity feels like oppression. And don’t you dare say “We’re all oppressed”, I mean it. We will whoop your ass. 

  6. No, we don’t want to present on slavery this month, but we sure as hell will continue to call out white supremacy and anti-Black racism throughout, and you should too. 

  7. No, Black face is never a good idea. 

  8. Keep your pale hands out of our hair. Even if you asked. Even if we said yes. Half of the time out of fear of making things weird we may agree, but know that you made it weird and it feels absolutely disgusting. We are not animals in a freaking petting zoo.

  9. Ask and expect NOTHING from Black people this month. And I mean NOTHING. We may not respond to texts, emails, phone calls, letters or carrier pigeons. Why? Because being around white people is draining, particularly in the context of this month.

  10. Keep your white tears (and guilt) to yourself. 

And in one final pro-bonus tip, remember Black people exist year-round. How about not conforming to societal standards and give recognizing Black heritage a try the other 11 months of the year? 

But in all seriousness, I write this not just as a wake-up call, but as a demand for action. If you truly care for Black lives, care for them. Don’t expect labour, particularly during February. Don’t take up space in Black places. And don’t attempt to equate your issues to that of the Black struggle. 

For me, this month began weeping in a BLM meeting out of exhaustion and the realization that too many Black lives no longer matter. As I wept surrounded virtually by comrades and community I didn’t feel vulnerable, I felt empowered for I knew this would be the last time I let myself be exploited under the guise of Black History Month. 

And so dear readers, take what you will from what I’ve said. But know that next year I won’t be nearly as nice, but I’ll be even more pro-Blackity Black. 

Stay zesty (and maybe a little less colonial),

Ra’anaa (they/them)

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