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Reflections on Black History Month

Black history is American history – but too often, Black voices have been left out of the conversation. In recognition of Black History Month, Mirna Valerio – bestselling author, speaker, ultramarathon runner and L.L.Bean Ambassador – wrote this essay reflecting on the month’s past, and imagining a future that paints a fuller, more inclusive picture of American history.

As a child I used to want to hide in a corner whenever it was Black History Month. I was one of three Black kids in all of my elementary school classes filled with mostly non-Black kids from Puerto Rican and Italian families, and eyes would inevitably travel to the three of us as we learned about the same people over and over and over again every year, as if they were the only Black people that existed. It always started with Dr. Martin Luther King, and then our studies would predictably travel to Rosa Parks and maybe Harriet Tubman or Marcus Garvey. If it was a particularly engaging teacher, we would do a deep dive on folks like Sojourner Truth or Benjamin Banneker. 

But then on the other hand, I didn’t want to hear about the depressing stuff either as a young person. It was like there was no middle ground. We would extol the heroes, and then go right into speaking of slavery without addressing the collective, generational trauma that ensued. It made me feel as though there were only two aspects of Blackness – heroes and slavery – and I didn’t feel as if I fit into either narrative, even though I knew it was part of my history. Where were the regular people who weren’t heroes and/or martyrs? Where were the celebrations of community leaders, politicians and personalities, mathematicians, scientists, artists and musicians, writers, explorers, composers, and adventurers?  

In my adulthood, as a teacher and equity and inclusion practitioner, I balked at the notion of being asked to lead celebrations of Black History Month. Why? Because for far too long it seemed like an empty endeavor – we would repeat the beautiful, prescient utterances of Dr. Martin Luther King, often without context and quickly highlight a handful of people, people who were obvious and important beacons in our collective past.  But then, we would also gloss over or exclude our current history / current beacons, who folks in our community could look up to as contemporaries. I participated in this model too. I’d get up and speak, have some talented students perform deeply felt music, dance, and poetry, we’d close with a slideshow, and then, bam – Black History Month was over in a day. 

But what if we changed the protocol? What if Black History wasn’t distilled into only one month? There is much more to us than can be studied in one month. What if we actually included the contributions and history (the painful, the joyful, and the quotidian) into every aspect of our historical learning? It would not only pave the way not just for appreciating Black History as just a part of the country’s history, but give people a fuller understanding of our current history. This is also true of Native American, Asian-American, and Latinx histories as well. What are traditionally seen as periodic contributions, are vital, integral, and interwoven aspects of the entirety of American history.  

I have hope, though.  

I have hope that in this most recent iteration of racial strife and reckoning, that we will really see, and know intimately, the particulars of Black History in the United States. It is a multi-faceted, multidimensional, multiethnic spectrum of people, our accomplishments, our experiences, both shared and divergent, our pain and trauma, but also, our joys.  

I believe that there can be a Black History Month that brings everything and everyone into the fold, so that we can see, appreciate, and know a fuller picture of America. When we know our full history, we can understand better where we are today, and all the possibilities of an incredible future. 

Mirna Valeriois the author of the best-selling book A Beautiful Work in Progress, and a sought-after speaker who has focused her life on spreading health awareness, promoting diversity and inspiring and uplifting others to LIVE LARGE and be in charge of their own happiness. See and hear more of Mirna’s story in the short film “Running Through Barriers,” visit her website, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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