Black history isn’t just about the history-makers and big social movements. They begin as everyday people whose day-to-day experiences, inner Black life, and Black joy—this especially!—are just as much a part of Black history. Without daily life and joy, the picture narrows solely on struggle and trauma, and comes off as incomplete. We need it all.
Is the coast clear? Any instances of blackface or diversity snafus on the horizon to mar Black History Month? Any of that nonsense to call out? Only last year and the year before did rashes of both spread in news headlines. But not this year. We’re conditioned to anticipate them like clockwork, but it’s a relief not to see them. Too soon to call it? Anyway, this year’s Black History Month is starting on a more auspicious note.
After living through four years of an endless horror franchise, Joseph Biden gets sworn in today as commander in chief. Kamala Harris, in a historic moment for the US, gets sworn in as the first woman of color Vice President. And they have so much wreckage laying before them. No easy reset button will fix it or spirit it away. The pressure is on their administration to do right by a country reeling from a traumatic relationship with a white supremacist tyrant, and rightfully so. We reached out to our authors to ask what they want Biden and Harris to know, understand, or be aware of. On Inauguration Day, we share their responses with you.
By Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross | It is true that we [Black women] embody the motto coined by Nannie Helen Burroughs for the school she headed in 1909: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.” The motto, together with Nannie’s own history, stands as evidence that a Black woman could, and did, push past daunting obstacles to live a life decidedly less ordinary.
First, the American Dirt snafu. Now this? Barely into the beginning of Black History Month, we had a teachable moment. Yes, that kind of teachable moment. To celebrate the month, Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue announced the launch of their Diverse Editions. Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Secret Garden, and nine other classic novels—“classic” meaning, of course, older works of fiction from the white literary tradition, as though other cultures don’t have longstanding literary traditions of their own, tut-tut—would have custom designed covers, each one illustrating the main characters with multiethnic backgrounds.
You won’t find corny-ass statements here proclaiming that the year 2020 will usher a time of clearer vision. Puh-lease. That’s tired. What’s worth saying here, however, is we need to keep our eyes on the issues that matter to us as we begin a new decade. Now that’s wired. We can get a picture of what matters by looking back at some of the top read blog posts on the Broadside in 2019.
It’s a clear-cut case of PTSD: Post-Traumatic Societal Disorder. The centuries-long trauma wrought by our nation’s history of slavery requires intensive therapy, because everybody is affected. Even our author, Daina Berry, said, “We are still living in the aftermath of slavery. It’s the stain on our flag and the sin of our country. Once we recognize this, face it, study it, and acknowledge the impact it has on all Americans, then we will be in a position to determine how we can move forward.” One of the ways to come to terms with it and move forward is to take in the full history, unabridged—free of sugar-coating, mythmaking, and claims of “American exceptionalism.”
Another legend gone. And more than a legend, she was a force! Novelist, editor, professor, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died on August 5 at age eighty-eight. Pick any book from her bibliography, and you will be mesmerized by her command of prose, her power to conjure up the ambience and lived-in feeling of Black communities and their heroines and heroes to the finest, vibrant detail. She was Black love, Black resilience, and Black brilliance personified. There won’t be another writer like her.
February: a month that’s too short to celebrate the centuries’ worth of contributions Black Americans made to American history—and in 2019, evidently, a hot mess of a breeding ground for racial stupidity in the news! Whether it’s Liam Neeson revealing his past racist vendetta. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam admitting he was in a racist yearbook photo involving blackface. Or Gucci apologizing for and removing its “blackface” sweater. So much blackface. Even though we’re in 2019, it keeps happening. And because it keeps happening, we need to keep learning why and what to do about it. Time to hit the books! Again! In the spirit of Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racism syllabus, we put together our own.
By Daina Berry | Many enslaved children have vivid memories of the sale experience. Marlida Pethy of Missouri recalled that when she was “nine or ten years old,” she was “put up on de block to be sold.” Of the stand, she recalled, “It was just a piece cut out of a log and [it] stood on [one] end.” Her recollection about her price is even more telling: “Dey was offered $600 but my mistress cried so much dat master did not sell me.” The mistress’s attachment to her human property was so great in this case that the family decided not to sell Marlida. Such interventions were not always successful or helpful. Several enslaved people reported that their mistresses were as violent and sadistic as their husbands. In this case, we do not know if Marlida preferred to remain with her mistress. All we know is that Marlida was not sold and that, decades later, she remembered the monetary value she carried at auction. It made a deep impression on her young mind.
Black History Month is the time that connections need to be made between the ancestors of Black heritage and the living inheritors. As educator Christopher Emdin wrote on our blog, the stories of past battles should never be told as if they are over or conquered. The stories are alive and playing out today. The connections are more powerful when they’re grounded in the context of history. In the spirit of Emdin’s observations, we’re offering a list of recommending reading to bridge the past with the present.
A Q&A with Daina Ramey Berry: Since the early twentieth century, when trained historians and economists wrote about the institution of slavery, many included the monetary values of “prime male field hands” in their work. They argued that these individuals were the most valued and quantifiable members of the plantation community, and that by tracking their prices one could analyze the profitability of the institution. I was always struck that few scholars provided historical context for these prices and that women, children, and the elderly were rarely included. I also knew that enslaved people had very different conceptions of their value.