I love Black History Month.
Quick story: a few weeks ago, I took my grandmother with me when I went to the White House to cover Michelle Obama’s last speech, which was to honor the School Counselor of the Year. When she stopped on our way out to drink out of the water fountain, I smiled at my grandmother’s adorable affinity for public water fountains. But it wasn’t until a few days later when she sent a text saying how much the moment had meant to her — she couldn’t drink out of just any water fountain growing up, she reminded me, but on that day, she’d sipped from the water fountain at the White House — that I remembered the significance of what I’d seen that day as just another of my grandmother’s quirks.
Black History Month, to me, is a time in which the entire nation is supposed to celebrate Black Excellence.
Yesterday, I went to church for the first Sunday in awhile. When we were to remain standing after the invocation (usually, we sit after we all say “Amen.”), I smiled, knowing it was time for the congregation to all sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” I hoped my children were singing it in children’s church — I’ve been trying to teach it to them lately. I sang the words to all three verses, and silently wrote #CAU on an imaginary notepad in my head. James Weldon Johnson, author of the lyrics we were all singing, was a graduate of Atlanta University (which would later merge with Clark College to form Clark Atlanta University), the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, the first black professor at NYU, and later an esteemed professor at Fisk University. Black History. Black Excellence.
I thought about this church and all the things it has meant to my life. I thought about how fortunate I had been to grow up in this world with so many black Ph.Ds and other professionals as examples. My pastor himself was a black Ph.D., a graduate of Alabama State University. His father had known the King family, and the stories he told made the things we learned in history books real for me. But it wasn’t just his stories; he also gave us the Greek and Latin derivatives of many words we read in the Bible, which unknowingly helped me build vocabulary and an understanding of etymology from a young age. I learned how to read the Bible on my own, and when I got to high school, I couldn’t understand for the life of me why people were struggling with Shakespeare. (Didn’t they read the Bible? It was the same writing style!)
I thought about how my grandmother would drive to New Jersey every weekend to bring me down for Sunday service, and later Saturday choir rehearsal. I thought about how it was in this church that I learned the importance of discipline, character and integrity. It was here that I learned what I should be as a woman, a wife and a mother. It was here that I learned to persevere, even when you didn’t feel like it, and show up where you said you’d be. It was here that I addressed my first large audience, sick as can be, knees shaking, as I delivered a black history month oratory years ago. It was here that I learned about pitch and tone and key, how to overpronounce my words on stage, and the importance of clear articulation of thought.
It was here that I learned how to petition my elected officials and follow legislation. It was here that I got my political education, during my pastor’s “educational moments” after the announcements. It was here that I first saw a sitting president in person, when President Bill Clinton and his family attended service, after which President Clinton discussed the crime bill, which he would go on to sign a month later.
So much of who I am today, both personally and professionally, is because of the time I spent in this place. And let me just tell you: Attending a black church on the first Sunday of Black History Month is an experience rivaled only by attending the same on Resurrection Sunday. There is pride and pain and triumph and accomplishment and poise and piety and generations of black history and black excellence on display, in real life.
All of these things that make me who I am are the reasons I love Black History Month, though I do not love it the way it is taught in schools today. Black history is so much more than Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and the 13th Amendment. Black history is all of the grandmothers who couldn’t drink out of water fountains, all of the students at HBCUs and other institutions who stood up for what they believed in. It is my best friend, a Spelman woman, who created a movement to show appreciation for the first Black president on his last day in office. It is my daughter, who wants to be an engineer one day, and the women in Hidden Figures — Mrs. Katherine Goble Johnson, Mrs. Dorothy Vaughan and Mrs. Mary Jackson — who inspire her.
Black history, and the month of February, is about all of the generations of black people whose excellence may not always be shouted from the mountaintops, but whose lights have not dimmed in spite of the most valiant attempts by others in this country to extinguish them.
And to the educators who follow me, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to implore you to teach the students in your care more than Dr. King’s nonviolence and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Make an effort this February to highlight some individuals your students may not know, to have some discussions about the past and present that you may not normally have and make it real and relevant for students of all races. And if you need any help figuring out where to start, feel free to drop me a line!