Sure, this Black History Month looked different than years past (hi, we’re still facing the brunt of a pandemic—heard about it?) But this month has felt different, too—in a good way. It’s my first as an activist and, for me, there’s a euphoric atmosphere in the Black community right now.
In the last year, I became an active part in the Black Lives Matter movement, dedicating my time to exploiting oppressive systems through my organization, Warriors in the Garden. I've led thousands of people through the streets of New York City chanting for justice—and witnessing extreme police brutality inflicted upon non-violent protesters by the NYPD—and have created safe spaces for Black women to feel unconditionally loved and supported.
We have to support one another against all odds as we seek liberation and equity. Black History Month, for me, means embracing my Blackness, discovering what brings me Black Joy, whether it’s staying at home binge-watching a Netflix series or being physically in the streets making sure the message I’ve been trying to convey for the past few months is heard: Black Lives Matter. Black people don’t need direction on what brings us Black joy. Black people don’t need to be silenced in decision-making. Black people don’t need seats at any table because we’re constructing our own ineradicable, platformed table. Black people are creating spaces for themselves and ensuring inevitable change is in favor of the Black community.
This year, I’m celebrating Black History Month by taking time to educate myself and others on accurate Black history—not the watered-down versions many of us learned in school. Many people remain unaware of just how much Black people have contributed to the advancement of, well, everything. Take, for example, Dr. Patricia Bath, the first Black woman to receive a medical patent and invented the laserphaco probe which propelled forward the field of laser eye surgery. Or the Black town in Kansas, named after Nicodemus, a legendary African American slave. These are just a few examples of the history I’ve digested this month, all gratitude to grassroots organizations and dedicated activists.
Speaking of activists—I caught up with four phenomenal Black women who are navigating Black History Month amid the dual pandemics, systemic-racism and COVID-19, about the significance this month, in this year, holds for them. Here are highlights from my conversations with co-founder of Until Freedom, Tamika Mallory, model and activist Gia Love, co-founder of Freedom March NYC, Nialah Edari, and award-winning writer and activist Raquel Willis.
What does Black History Month 2021 mean to you?
“As a Black trans womxn, we continue to call for unity and comprehension of similarities and differences in order to move the needle forward for Black culture. If all of us aren’t free, receive the same rights, equal protection and treatment, none of us will be free. Black History Month 2021 represents an intersectional awareness month for Black folks who are different, elevating our stories as a branch of Black history.” —GIA LOVE
“I served as Columbia University Black History Month co-chair for two years in a row. Even when I graduated I still returned to Columbia for Black History Month. Usually, I’m going to fashion shows, the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday series, I’m going out to eat, I’m posting content, that has been my tradition. It’s been difficult because it’s a virtual space now and Black History Month is my Christmas in a way.” —NIALAH EDARI
“Black History Month has fresh meaning because it’s evident that we’re in the continuation of a struggle that has persisted for 400+ years and today, it feels like even with all this frustration and challenges ahead, we’re putting a crack in the foundation of systemic oppression in this country. Black history in this moment informs and keeps us accountable, but also is a guiding light for where we’re going as Black people.” —TAMIKA MALLORY
Has the present-day movement made you feel better, with gained support from the Black community and Black trans womxn achieving progress in ways that maybe felt less accessible just a few years ago?
“I do think society is growing and more people are understanding our experiences, and also understanding we’re all impacted by restrictive ideas of gender and identity. However, I think we still have a long way to go. As long as there is even one Black trans death each year or one Black trans person who is in fear of leaving their home, we have not come far enough in liberation work to truly honor the dignity of our lives and experiences. I’m not ready to pat any group on the back for how they consider and show up for Black trans people because I think we still have so much more work to do.” —RAQUEL WILLIS
How is this month different from years prior?
“Girl, we’re in a pandemic. It’s virtual. We can’t do anything physically with our community. I’m socially awkward but I do like to be around people and not being around other Black people has been extremely difficult. As we learned last March, people started Club Quarantine, figuring out ways to celebrate and have virtual parties. In the meantime, we can celebrate, uplift, and amplify each other on social media.” —N.E.
“In 2021, Black History Month has a renewed resonance for the general public, in the aftermath of the reemergence of the movement for Black Lives, and increased dialogue on white supremacy and racial injustice there’s a different feeling this year than previously. Along with so many of us being stifled by the pandemic, people aren’t in a space to celebrate their Blackness full speed.” —R.W.
How do you celebrate your Blackness?
“In February, I offer myself to other individuals who are looking for ways to celebrate Black History. I participate in activities that give other people opportunities to learn more about us and our issues because the world is watching. People have carved out 28 days to focus solely on the history of Black people/Africans who are in America. I celebrate my blackness every day, I feel like my activism is a radical expression of the love I feel for Black people and for myself as a Black woman.” —T.M.
“I celebrate my Blackness every day by just existing, oftentimes entering spaces where people still have ignorance, or where people are not used to being held accountable for their internalized racism. I celebrate my community, so, I feel like I’m obligated to do so, in an educational way and if things have to get a little assertive, it’s with love. I have to let people know, Your perception of my history and how I’m supposed to be treated is far remote from the way I exist in my head and my execution.
“This year, I did a Black trans liberation video project, “What Do They Call Us”, with Black Trans Liberation and the Stonewall Protests, it was the first time I was in discussion with my Blackness and Transness. I’m starting to be unapologetic about the intersections of my identity and understanding my Blackness, my transness, and my experiences in the world.” —G.L.
“You can’t put our Blackness in a box. Blackness isn’t truly definable, we have carved our own ways of being Black, especially as a Black trans womxn. I’m continuously inspired and heartened by witnessing the power of other Black queer and trans people because we’re still fighting for our justice within society but also in the larger Black community as well.” —R.W.
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