SHERLEY: Beyond black representation

A lot of people, some black folks included, think Black History Month is a lot like Coca-Cola’s America the Beautiful Super Bowl commercial. Consider it a kind of exercise in diversity visuals: If we show more black faces for 28 days and tell the same simplistic stories of MLK and Rosa Parks, we will have done our duty and can move on.

Representation is powerful, but ultimately what we want is to be equally valued by a society that currently erases many of the contributions and experiences of black people and other people of color. Black History Month is certainly not a transformative solution, but if, as a community, we all take this month seriously — use it as a time to reflect, learn and grow — then I think it can be a powerful stepping stone to the more tangible and foundational solutions our community desperately needs.

So while seeing more black people on our screens and in our classrooms is important, it’s not the point. And allowing this month to be framed that way trivializes a celebration that is, to me, really about the historical building blocks we have as black individuals, a black community and an American community, to construct our identities. Videos like Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad, which portrayed people of different ethnicities with “America the Beautiful” in the background, highlight both how far we’ve come and how far our narratives as black people are out of our hands. But while it is important that we are now at least seen in mainstream spaces, we are shown in ways that often simplify our character. Almost 150 years after the end of slavery, we still have not been able to fully wrest control back over our history — or even, in many cases, our current state of being. This is a better marker of where we stand in terms of our freedom in this country than these Super Bowl ads showcasing our diversity.

At the end of the day, the need for Black History Month comes back to the historical and continued oppression of black people both in this country and elsewhere. We wouldn’t need to work so hard to celebrate our history if it were not devalued and erased. We wouldn’t have to spend so much time struggling merely to be seen if our stories and presence were valued equally. We wouldn’t have to fight so hard to assert our value as human beings if this society valued the lives of boys like Trayvon Martin and transgender woman Duanna Johnson. We wouldn’t have had to fight so long for a mere 28 days if our stories held their rightful place in the mainstream narrative of this country.

At its core, black history is American history. So while it is important to recognize the particular value of black history month to descendants of the Diaspora living in the United States, black history is not only relevant to all of us, but also highly intersectional. When we uncover the complex history of the civil rights movement, we will not only find the story of Martin Luther King Jr. but also of black gay men like Bayard Rustin and of women like Ella Baker. We will find stories of courageous and respectful allies from the work done by Morris Dees and Rabbi Joshua Heschel. This holds true throughout history. Blacks — including queer black people, disabled black people, black women, black transgender folks — along with their diverse allies, which include other races, religions and sexual orientations, are all equally present in this thing we call black history.

And so from this perspective, Black History Month becomes a lot more than a perfunctory exercise in representation and diversity. It becomes about who we value as a community, and by extension, how we decide who we are. Do we want to strive to be the community that systematically divests from communities of color, devalues black bodies and then constructs cultural narratives that blame the oppressed? Or do we want to be the community that puts the necessary resources into supporting true economic justice, values all lives and does not blame the survivors of violence for what they’ve gone through?

I want to be a part of the second community, but we’ll need a balanced and equitable understanding of our collective past to help us do it.

Eshe Sherley is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at eshe.sherley@yale.edu .

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