What BHM Actually Means to Black People

Black History Month is among us again, but this February it feels more poignant. With the radical realignment set in motion by the sociopolitical uprising this past year, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, this is no ordinary twenty-eight days for me. I’ve been stirred to re-examine the meaning and weight behind these designated weeks intended to shed light on the contributions of Black people in American history. Some questions I want to raise: Who does Black History Month benefit? Is it meant to appease? Is it performative? What happens after February? I asked around on social media to see if any of my peers were feeling as disheartened as me and got some noteworthy responses.

“It’s an introduction to Black History 365 days a year,” says a former classmate of mine, Leroy Peeples, 30, Boston. “I believe we should use it as a proper entry point to understanding our context and significance in history.”

When I look back on Februaries in New Jersey’s public school system I remember some well-meaning teachers highlighting African-American doctors, inventors, and scientists. I remember daily intercom announcements recognizing innovative Black men and women from bygone eras, sprinkled in with school news bulletins. I know the intentions were pure but I wonder who was really listening, and if it did enough to instill appreciation and bring insight to the young adults whose ears it fell on.

Something tells me it didn’t, because lots of those people have grown up to be continuously unaware (or willfully ignorant) of the roles racism and inequity play in the lives of non-white people in this country. In fact, there are even people who would choose to do away with teaching Black history if given the option, as evidenced by recent news out of Utah.

Even though the internet has provided an avenue for widespread information, conversations, and understanding, some people, corporations, and businesses are still getting it wrong. Like clockwork, mainstream media and companies are using this month as a means to push their personal agendas and capitalize off Black people—and many of us are complicit in buying into it.

“I celebrate Black history all year but I can see how it could be a slap in the face because [white people] use it to make money,” explains QThree, 28, Philadelphia. “I just don’t support any of those attempts.”

This is why my feelings toward Black History Month are ambivalent. Without a conscious eye it can be easy to overlook the commercial flagrance Black History Month ushers in. Fortunately, one of the echoes in the aftermath of 2020’s violence is the emergence of networks touting and supporting Black entrepreneurs. There’s no shortage of businesses to support for just about any of your needs, and I encourage you to take advantage.

The trouble I see with hyping up Black history for one twelfth of the year is that it can easily become a catalyst for forgetting about it beyond February. Justin Battle a 30 year-old from New Jersey, agrees.“People are only expecting to give attention to it around that time,” says Battle. He believes with a conscious effort we can shift that dynamic. “Let’s focus on it every day to a point where it’s second nature and people are thinking of Black history during summer on a random Tuesday afternoon.”

The general sentiment in the conversations with my Black peers was that we should be appreciative of Black achievement all the time, but having an allotted month doesn’t hurt. “I think it’s necessary to recognize all of our past and current contributions and do so at all times of the year, but let’s also remember that we deserve to be celebrated simply because we exist,” explains Gabby Ferrell, 22, CT. “We don’t need to prove our worth. We are powerful by being.”

The alternative would be not to have a Black History Month at all, which one Black gubernatorial candidate in Michigan is campaigning on. Taking that avenue just doesn’t feel right. After all, American history and Black history are inextricable.

“It’s simply a way to celebrate Black people’s accomplishments, and it’s very much needed,” says Ricki Burroughs Jr., 40, NJ. I have to agree. We don’t need permission to celebrate or stand in our excellence, and having a recognized moment doesn’t take anything away from us. But like Whitney Houston famously said...we need a longer month.