My Dad recently came across some of my old books and papers from elementary school. How (or better yet, why) he managed to keep them all these years are beyond me, but I’m glad that he did.
In the pile of stuff was a project for school that I remember working on years and years ago during Black History Month along with a book about Rosa Parks. As I flipped through the book and my project, I joked with my mom that I’ve always been an activist. Though only 28 days, Black History Month remains one of my favorite times of the year. However as I grow older, it has taken on a new relevance in my life.
Motivation to Work Toward Something Great
During my childhood I enjoyed creating posters, books and bulletin boards covered with black faces who had accomplished so much for our community. I attended schools that had a majority black student population so it wasn’t out of the norm for me to see smart, success-bound individuals that shared my skin color; but somehow taking the time to acknowledge the accomplishments of people like Shirley Chisholm and Thurgood Marshall gave me an extra boost of pride. It motivated me to want to be great and work toward creating something that would last long before I’m gone.
My own legacy…
I was infatuated with black authors and entertainers like Eric Jerome Dickey, Toni Morrison, Lauryn Hill, Alvin Ailey and so many more. It was during my middle school years that the creator inside of me emerged. Because of those authors and entertainers, I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to create the next bestselling book or maybe the next platinum album (even though I have not one singing bone in my body). I wanted to be like them. They truly shaped my taste in literature, music and art.
To me, Black History was a great thing. It was a time to pay homage to everyone who paved the way for me. I would be able to vote one day because of their work. I could eat wherever I wanted when I wanted because of the brave students who participated in sit-ins. Now that I think about it, the fact that I was a little black girl in Mississippi didn’t even resonate with me at the time. That’s for later…keep reading.
But We’ve Come so Far
During my teenage years I began to question the entire point of Black History Month. I wondered why we needed to celebrate it if we’d come so far. (I’m laughing at myself right now.) I can only chalk this mentality up to being jaded by the advancements in our community and how it had become completely normal to see blacks have the same opportunities as whites did. Did Madame CJ Walker still need her props? Celebrating Black History Month didn’t give me the same excitement as before. I didn’t want to learn anything else about the Civil War, Confederates or Civil Rights. Those were the old days. Boy was I wrong!
In the words of my black momma – I got beside myself! (Tweet me @jessicasimien if you know what this means.)
Thank God for HBCUs…and persistent grad school History professors
Not until I became a student at Jackson State University in Fall 2006 did I come back to my senses. Attending college on a historically black campus was like a four-year-long Black History lesson. My professors had so much pride in being Black and educated. They carried themselves with a vibe of accomplishment and priceless worth. I can see one of my Speech Communication professors now in her suit, pronouncing her words with all the pride and grace inside of her. I learned why colleges like JSU and Tougaloo are so important. I learned more about iconic black figures like James Meredith and John Lewis. I joined the NAACP, I participated in marches and protests. I was able to grasp why Black History is so important and necessary. I learned about institutional racism and how certain laws have been established to impact the black community negatively…to keep us from being as successful and positively impactful as we could be.
While studying for my PhD at Southern Miss, I became a fan of the Black Panther Party and lesser known Black History figures. I studied media trends in history revolving the coverage of blacks, civil rights activities and the messages that were put out to our community about how we should look and think about ourselves. It’s (unsurprisingly) parallel to the way things are now.
My Little Black Boy
Now that I’m a mother, to a black boy at that, Black History Month is more important than it has ever been.
I think a lot of the issues that our community faces internally has to do with not truly understanding who we are and where we come from. Slavery was not the beginning of our story and poverty and incarceration will not be the end of it. I want him to know who paved the way for him to have the rights and privileges that he will have as he grows. I want him to feel a sense of responsibility to his community…to his ancestors…to always do his best and defy the odds. I want him to honor and respect his peers. I want him to respect and uplift his fellow black brothers. I want him to respect and protect his black sisters. I want him to be honorable and understand how powerful he is, regardless of the political and racial climate and who the media and society tells him he is.
We will celebrate Kwanzaa, Black History Month and Juneteenth just as we will other major holidays. I refuse to raise a culturally insensitive or ignorant child. I want him to be empowered from the start so that he can leave a mark on this world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about moving to another state since giving birth. I’ve always felt that I had a mission in Mississippi but I don’t know if the progress here is moving at a rate that is inline with my goals for my family. I know that every place has racism, that’s obvious with the current leadership giving them a louder voice, but my issues with Mississippi aren’t just racial. I really want a fresh start. I want to expose my son to more. I want him to have opportunities that I didn’t have and I’m believing more and more that the responsibility lies with Tony and I to make that decision. We’ll see as time passes but regardless of where we end up for the long haul, we will be a Black History celebrating crew.