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Putting Black History Month in Perspective with Brandi Waller-Pace

Feb 28, 2023

Putting Black History Month in Perspective with Brandi Waller-Pace

[Editor’s note: To mark the conclusion of Black History Month, we’ve invited BGS collaborator and contributor Brandi Waller-Pace to share her thoughts on how to take the ethos, mission, and action of BHM with us throughout the year.]

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Black American writer and historian, is known as the Father of Black History Month. One of the first scholars of African American history, he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and established Negro History Week in February of 1926. He chose the week of February that contained the birthdays of both Frederick Douglas (February 14th) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) as both birthdays were already being celebrated in Black communities. In 1970 The Black United Students organization at Kent State University began a celebration of Black History Month, and in 1976 President Ford declared Black History Month nationwide.”

– Brandi Waller-Pace, Decolonizing the Music Room, 2001 

Dr. Woodson’s selection of Douglass and Lincoln’s birthday indicates how significant they were, especially since the 1920s being just one generation removed from the Civil War – with many formerly enslaved Black people still alive. Even today, we are not nearly as removed from that time period as we think we are. In 1976, the year of the United States’ bicentennial and fifty years after the first Negro History Week, President Ford expanded the commemoration to last an entire month and Black History Month was born. 

Some folks ask, “If Black history is important all the time, why is it just a month?” But the literal history of the month itself, the fact that it exists at all, is part of Black history. It was a push to validate and celebrate the experiences, culture, study, and background of Black people in the land that came to be known as the United States, people who were viewed legally and societally as less than fully human, alongside the denial of their contributions to this country’s foundation and culture. Negro History Week was created to shine light on everything Blackness has created in the U.S. – and that week of recognition itself was created by a Black scholar. We know that Blackness and Black history is broader than just the U.S., and I find it important to look at that expanse in the context of Black History Month. 

When we talk about heritage months in general, we have to think about how we use terms: “Black,” “African American,” and so on. These ideas and terms didn’t all begin at the same point, they didn’t come out of the same movements, and they aren’t all used interchangeably or even in the same fashion. They also are not universally claimed by people we would place under their umbrella.

This is exactly what this month is for, to have these conversations and to open up these spaces, not to relegate Blackness to one month. Celebrating Blackness isn’t geared toward denying other groups their history – framing the month in terms of what it means for the recognition of other groups perpetuates false binaries, as if the only options available are honoring BHM at others’ expense, or ignoring BHM altogether. Celebrating Blackness is just that– acknowledging the history and the continuing traditions, culture, and advances of Black folks, who continue to make history. That sort of celebration is huge, especially considering the erasure and exclusion of so much of Black history in curriculum, media, and literature. 

It’s interesting to consider our ideas around Black History Month as they relate to our changing perceptions of time. As the world became more industrialized, mass communication advanced, and now we’re in the age of the internet where things seem to move lightning-fast and we are inundated with content, with emphasis on trends. This contributes to the impression of even meatier information simply being trends and waves in popular culture or only being flashes in the pan. This helps reinforce the idea that our celebrations of heritage months are just a moment, something for short attention spans, to be consumed in a second before scrolling on. You’ll see memes or posts like, “Now everybody is doing such-and-such a thing!” When that “thing” – almost always mocked as “woke” or “politically correct” – has possibly been around for hundreds of years. 

It’s a function and arm of the myth of white supremacy to present the “other” as invalid, unless there is something about it upon which one can capitalize. Time and time again, Black folks’ creations – our foodways and folkways, our cultural creations, our music, our ways of dress – have been erased, ignored, or derided unless there’s a point at which some kind of value can be extracted from it. It is then taken up by the mainstream, gates are built around it, and Black folks are purposefully distanced from it while others profit from it.

It’s like so many of the linguistic trends that have pervaded TikTok and internet culture, which are referred to as “Gen Z language,” but they are really rooted in African American Vernacular English and Black language that have been adopted by the internet writ large, but without understanding of or general reference to their origins. Because of how quickly the world moves and how information is passed along in the age of the internet, these pieces of culture are picked up, stripped down, and decontextualized so quickly.

Or consider the banjo – which is still represented in the mainstream specifically as a “white Appalachian instrument.” In the past, this representation was even upheld broadly among many trad communities in a factual way. In recent decades – thanks to the labor and diligence of some great humans – the banjo’s true origins have become more and more widely known, along with the story of how it was taken up into mainstream popular culture and how many Black people were distanced from their connection to the instrument while many white people continued to profit materially and/or reputationally from playing it.

In this time, Black cultural appropriation is so often perpetuated that it’s easy to have no awareness of these phenomena as they happen. Part of the work here is understanding that intention – or lack of intention – doesn’t mitigate impact. It’s important for all of us to understand how we perpetuate what we perpetuate and how we co-opt what we co-opt, whether mistruths about the banjo, slang and language trends, or Black History Month.

When we talk about privilege and perpetuation of this sort of appropriation, we tend to individualize, because in our society and culture we are conditioned to think individually. This manifests itself in a lot of ways; for instance, many speak against funding community care for people who need it, against investing in and giving people what they need – income, shelter, nutrition, access, resources. This comes from being taught that each gets their own – if you do, it’s because you are sufficient as a person, if you don’t it’s because you are deficient. While our society individualizes, it’s important to remember these are systemic, holistic, endemic issues that must be solved collectively. We must collaborate to repair the legacy of antiblackness, erasure, and exclusion that Black folks have experienced on this land for centuries.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t individual responsibility. Each of us can and should make individual efforts – as well as collective – to reckon with our privilege and our roles in perpetuating this status quo. And I would caution against positioning the individual against the collective; it’s collective and individual work. People interact with one another individually and interact with collective systems and groups. It’s such a balance; not taking away the need for individual focus and responsibility, but understanding that that same individual is part of the collective and should also drive the collective. Something like voting– when you’re in that booth, you’re by yourself, but your vote is collective action.

So, what is needed for others to make progress toward Black people and their creations being treated equitably? Start by building human relationships, first of all. Representation within ranks shouldn’t just be for “diversity’s sake.” Diversify spaces not just for the sake of diversifying spaces, but so these spaces aren’t just white-dominated and white-led, talking about these issues and what to do about these issues. Having actual human connection, being in relationship with one another, is vital. Have a willingness to invest in real, human relationships with the Black folks that you’re inviting in. There’s a huge difference in how one cares for and handles people they’re in real relationships with – not as just a representative identity, but as a human, a community member. It’s easier to listen to folks and really hear them, if you care about them.

Make sure not to employ a “color avoidant” (AKA “colorblind”) approach. If you care about me as a Black person and my full humanity, don’t erase my Blackness, because it is an important part of my identity, of which I am proud. But it also is something society has painted as negative and caring for me means acknowledging that that affects me. The status quo, white supremacist norms, are intertwined with our particularly fierce brand of capitalism, and it all seeks to completely individualize us and strip away our sense of collective care. So, one must be intentional in building relationships. But don’t stop connecting at those of us who are the easiest to access, who have the most resources and the privilege to already be in exclusive spaces you regularly encounter. That has us tokenized and other Black folks still erased, outside of the gates.

Then, based on these real, personal relationships with Black folks, you can step in when necessary to check your peers who are perpetuating the erasure, marginalization, tokenization we regularly experience among organizations and groups. In bluegrass, old-time, and roots music the number of Black folks present is never equal to the true cultural contributions of Black folks, which can result in heavy tokenization. We can feel actions are being taken just to check a box, versus work being done to make structural change over time. 

There is a great deal of societal resistance against taking deliberate, intentional actions to address antiblackness. It is important to view this work through the lens of reparation, in a real material and financial sense and to direct resources to Black communities, giving Black folks the discretion to use those resources as they see fit, rather than insisting on providing your oversight. At the same time, those who hold this industry and community power should understand that people aren’t always going to want to be hired in or brought on to diversify or as a solution to a diversity problem.

 You can do both at the same time. I had a conversation recently with someone about the festival I founded, the Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival, about pushes to diversify spaces, versus creating new ones. Both of these strategies are completely valid – if you run a festival, by all means bring on more Black artists next year. But at the same time, donate money to spaces specifically aimed at building a more involved Black community within roots music – ones in which we don’t often get to participate.

It’s also important to address the concept of inclusion. The word “inclusion” can be frustrating, because the baseline for inclusion is, “We made something in which you weren’t included upfront, and now we have to figure out how to put you in it.” The focus can’t always be on bringing Black presence into those spaces; there is also a responsibility to support what Black people are already building, letting us do our thing. If your support is given upon the condition that we stick within your established frameworks, is it really support?

I often remind people that it takes time and energy to process all this information, put it into a historical context, and really understand disparities caused by antiblackness – especially because, for instance, not all white folks are rich, not all privilege is financial privilege, and so on. On the grand scale, huge financial disparities exist between white and Black people in the U.S. Confronting this may cause discomfort; sitting in discomfort is hard. But I see it the way I see physical exercise – when you’re working out, if you aren’t pushing your muscles to failure you can’t grow. This work is building muscle. This is why understanding that you, even as individuals, are part of the collective is so important. Because, at this point, the individual gets fed up. The individual tires when it gets tough. It can feel so insurmountable, but this is when people can remind themselves that they are part of a collective and have others to help with the load.

When discomfort creeps up, one may go to, for lack of a better idiom, black-and-white thinking. So many people who aren’t Black want to ignore that antiblackness is so deeply rooted in the history of our country, in our economy, in this industry, in our perceptions of the world around us – whose full humanity is or isn’t acknowledged; what defines beauty; what defines intelligence; and much more. When we’re talking about these issues more broadly, going back to the original question of “Why Black History Month?” Why is this distinction, this specificity important? If you’re striving for justice, working to dismantle white supremacy, working toward creating pathways to success for Black folks in this industry and within capitalism, but aren’t talking at all about Blackness specifically, you’re missing something major. There’s something distinct about Black people’s position in this society – just as there’s something distinct about the position of Indigenous, Asian, Latine and other non-white folks in this society.

These white supremacist narratives that erase Blackness’ contributions on this land, that heritage months like Black History Month work to interrupt, became what they are today over centuries of very dedicated legal, cultural, and personal efforts to entrench them. That process took hundreds of years, so why do we expect one workshop, one presentation, one article to be all it takes?

Photo courtesy of Brandi Waller-Pace

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Putting Black History Month in Perspective with Brandi Waller-Pace
Putting Black History Month in Perspective with Brandi Waller-Pace