Learning from Black history to advance Black futures

Learn From Black History To Advance Black Futures.png
Graphic: Oxfam

Oxfam America staff share what this Black History Month means to them

Black History Month originated in the 1920s to teach Black students about their history, which had been left out of the narrative of American history. While Black history should be taught all year round, Black History Month designates a time of year for us to recognize the accomplishments of Black activists, scholars, artists, and changemakers who have shaped our world as we know it.

In the last year, as the dual viruses of COVID-19 and racism took lives and further increased socio-economic inequities, people mobilized, speaking out against police violence and calling for support of Black businesses and to hold institutions accountable for promoting white supremacy. In light of this national reckoning, Oxfam staffers share their reflections on this Black History Month and remind us why it’s imperative that we think beyond the moment.

Black Lives Matter spelled out in Amharic. Photo: Provided by Rewald

Rebecca Rewald, Program Advisor, TAP Grant and Gender

Black History Month is always a little bittersweet for me—on the one hand, why isn’t celebrating Black culture and history a mainstream, everyday practice? Black history is history. Period. On the other hand, it does provide dedicated space and time for learning and reflecting on how much Black people have contributed to our collective progress despite constant oppression.

I like to focus my thoughts and actions in Black History Month—and throughout the year—on celebrating the richness and diversity of Blackness in the US and around the world. As an Ethiopian-American, I celebrate my Ethiopian heritage and my Black Americanness, and I hold those two identities close to my heart, with equal value. The struggles and the adversity we’ve faced as Black people around the world are important, but I like to focus my energy during this month reflecting on the Black communities’ strengths, our beauty, our resilience, our joy, our collective power, our love. For me, this month is about reflecting on how my ancestors changed the world with their power in big and small ways and how this ultimately led to my life being full of good things today.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met only once. On March 26, 1964, they ran into each other on the way to the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo: Library of Congress

Bukola Anifowoshe, Coordinator, Power and Money

Black History Month has different meanings to people from all walks of life. It even has different meanings for Black people across the diaspora, who carry their own personal experiences with race, as well as that of their ancestors. To me, this month is the only time of year where Black people can truly feel like they matter, as their contributions to the world are explicitly recognized. The immense perseverance and dedication to human rights that our people have stood for globally throughout history should be acknowledged and celebrated year-round.

To genuinely honor Black history, I dived into a daily routine of reading the works of revolutionary thinkers and activists, such as Audrey Lorde, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King documents his reflections and timeless recommendations for the future of America. As he detailed both the most climactic and most tense points of historic civil rights protests, my eyes were opened to the strong parallels between what he experienced in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the oppression that Black Americans are subjected to in this moment in history.

Year-round, we have faced brutal images of abuse by police, and tearful Black families mourning loved ones lost to COVID-19 at an extremely disproportionate rate. At times like this, when it becomes more clear that American society has since turned its back on Black people, the Black community turned inward. We mobilized to support Black-owned businesses and Black-led grassroots organizations to do for ourselves what institutions have not. The flood of support that business-owners and local leaders experienced truly warmed my heart. I am always inspired by the fact that despite centuries of abuse and exploitation, our ancestral sense of community remains strong.

Dr. King wrote: “However much we pool our resources and ‘buy Black,’ this cannot create the multiplicity of new jobs and provide the number of low-cost houses that will lift the [Black person] out of the economic depression caused by centuries of deprivation. Neither can our resources supply quality integrated education. All of this requires billions of dollars which only an alliance of liberal-labor-civil-rights forces can stimulate. In short, the [Black person’s] problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.”

As much as we try to uplift our communities, we cannot solve systemic racism or singlehandedly repair institutions designed to oppress racial minorities. I urge other groups—particularly decisionmakers—to heed Dr. King’s tangible social recommendations, rather than simply using his famous quotes as a superficial show of solidarity one month a year.

Street art honor Breonna Taylor in Philadelphia. Photo: Provided by Serhan

Nic Serhan, Development Engagement Specialist, Individual Giving

Black History Month is when I experience the cycling of time the most, reflecting on all the ways we transform our pain and radiate our joy across centuries and oceans. It’s a time for us to speak proudly and move freely in honor of our ancestors who imagined that we would. A commemoration of our existence and strength. It’s a time to document the present, hold each other in the light, and amplify each other’s voices.

Perhaps most importantly, I think of Black History Month as a time to celebrate our futures. Inspiration comes not just from the past, but also from today’s activists and artists who command respect. We’re seeing young Black voices emerge whose stories wouldn’t traditionally be centered and they’re showing us all that it’s OK to be yourself—your full self. They remind us all of the responsibility we have to invest in a future that is Black.

This Black History Month comes in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately taking Black lives. After months of mobilizing for Black people who were murdered by police, the calls to action that Black organizers have been making for decades have never been more urgent. Right now is a call to action for mutual aid, to commit to improving access to healthcare and education for Black kids, supporting Black-owned businesses, and ensuring our communities are safe and sustainable for generations to come.

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