By: Briana McDonald
Malcolm X said, “Our history did not begin with slavery.” For all intents and purposes, he was correct. Black people have been responsible for some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs, whether these be small household items like the ironing board, critical items such as the traffic light, or even life-saving tools like the gas mask. Tracing our roots back to Africa, we can find even more indispensable inventions – the first known mathematical object and the first surgery were found in Egypt; feats of architecture like the Pyramids and the Sphinx are Egyptian; even the first speech is traced back to sub-Saharan Africa!
So, it makes sense that 91 years after the first Negro History Week, Black History Month is a tradition that still comes around every year in February – a month chosen to commemorate the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. But not only is Black History Month a celebration; it is a reminder. Our current political climate is tense, and we have seen many Black people in the news lately for more deaths than achievements. But rather than focusing on these deaths, Black History Month is a time to commemorate – to focus on resilience and unity rather than what divides us.
We know that Black History is important, but how do we recognize it? What makes Black achievements “history”? And how does our school celebrate Black History Month?
The Association for Racial Equality, or A.R.E., is a relatively new club at Heritage. The club is candid and non-judgemental, including students of all races and ethnic backgrounds. In A.R.E, students have discussions, plan activities, and educate and inform each other in a way that is centered around racial issues and current events. I spoke to the club’s pioneer, Malik Harrison, to find out more.
“I made the club back in either late September or late October. I was sitting on the couch watching the news about someone who was pulled over and shot by police, and people were outraged. I thought to myself, for one: why does this kind of stuff happen? And two: people can talk about this all day, like ‘Oh, it’s a travesty,’ but what are you actually doing about that? What am I doing to prevent that from happening? And I couldn’t think of anything. So I asked myself, what can one person do to spark conversations about this? I talked to my mom about it, and we came up with starting a club – ‘cause, I mean, actions speak louder than words. I basically just wanted to make this club to discuss certain topics concerning every race, to educate people, and to just bring awareness about being a minority; and how we can come together as a school, as a community, overlooking race.”
Not only do students find it important to have discussions about race in our modern climate, teachers also have a need to facilitate this discourse. Ms. Sandra Forner is one of our history teachers here at Heritage. She instructs students in United States History at the AP, honors, and academic levels. But there is a new class Ms. Forner’s taken on – she now teaches African-American studies. I discussed the class with Ms. Forner and discovered some of her motivations and opinions about Black History as well.
“African-American studies is really more about the history and culture. I’ve always considered African American history as being part of the American story. I don’t think that it’s ever really been given equal time or thought as American history. And so what I hope to do is not to lead students to answers, but to open up their minds to questions, by really delving into what it meant to become an African-American: sometimes to a slave, sometimes to a servant, sometimes to a free Black. It is important to follow that process as we move through history because I don’t think that was something that we cover well. I want to open up people to questions because I think, before we can understand the systemic racism that we have in this country and have open and honest dialogue about why our political, economic, and social structures are the way they are, we have to understand where this comes from. Why is it so different in America as opposed to France? Or England? Because they had slavery there, but it’s vastly different today. So, I think if you can understand how we got to where we are, then you can work to create change.”
If you’ve listened to the morning announcements lately, you may have noticed students giving short blurbs of information on lesser-known African-Americans who have made an impact on our society. This activity is part of African American studies as well, and I asked Ms. Forner why it was important to her to curate it.
“I think that we have relegated February to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. And what I’m trying to instill in people is that everyday heroes make a difference. People that you’ve never even heard of can further society just as much, if not more so, than Dr. King. In simply recognizing Dr. King and Rosa Parks and the very well-known African Americans, we continue the same story. The story is broader and much richer. And that’s why we, as a people, do not know African-American History. For example, I went and saw Hidden Figures. I was so angry that such a dedicated group of women were so erased; it’s like they didn’t even exist. Had the story not been told now, then we would never have known. This is major! If we know John Glenn, why can’t we know the people who got him there?”
Finally, out of curiosity, I asked Ms. Forner the question, “What makes Black achievements “history”?
“What makes any achievement history? I look at achievements as something that furthers mankind in some way. It could be something as simple as figuring out that we need to have a traffic light so that cars don’t run into each other. Any type of achievement that African Americans exhibit dispels the myth. And, by dispelling the myth, you are really punching holes in inequality, punching holes in the predominant history. And that’s important.”
When I visited A.R.E, I asked the students there, “What does Black History Month mean to you?” I received answers ranging from “remembrance” to “giving credit where credit is due” to “educating others on the magic that is being Black.” But there was one response I received that was especially touching: “Black History Month is about remembering those who risked their lives for equality of African Americans and appreciating their sacrifice.” Often we forget that these figures we celebrate sacrificed something – whether it be time, dignity, or even their lives – and that they are not simply one-dimensional examples but symbols of what Black people had to endure and what we are still enduring.
This Black History Month, take a little time to celebrate someone you haven’t heard of before. Learn a little extra history. Dispel the myth. Because you, too, can punch holes in equality just by knowing.