Black History Month Is About More Than Slavery and Dr. King

How this mother is challenging the way we celebrate Black history

Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

Each year during Black History Month I share this letter that I wrote to my local library as a concerned parent in 2017. The library responded graciously and favorably and we have collaborated on the Black History Month display each year since. I share the letter because the message is always relevant and I hope it can challenge some common conceptions about what Black History Month is, remove constraints around the idea of what Black history is, and encourage others to raise awareness in their communities about Black history. It also provides some concrete examples of ways that we can approach celebrating Black History Month each year for people who haven’t approached it this way historically.

[February 2017]

So, had a small victory here in Massachusetts at our public library in our town. The Black History Month display this year was offensive and, naturally, I was OUTRAGED. I stormed over there (after counsel from my family, some friends, and [my child’s father]), and delivered this letter to the library director. I could not have been happier with her response and the outcome. Given that the unfortunate display (curated by a local history teacher) should never have been up in the first place, I have nothing but respect for her handling of the situation once I expressed my concerns. She apologized, thanked me for my beautiful letter (her words), and has taken it down, replacing it with some things I suggested in my letter. I’m not attaching a picture of the original display here, although you can read about it below, because I feel like it’s already had enough circulation in the two weeks it was up at the library. I will share the new display when A and I visit the library again. I want to reiterate the small plug I made yesterday for being present, speaking up, and fighting for what we believe in for ourselves and our children!!

To whom it may concern:

I am a [redacted] resident and homeowner who grew up here in town. I visited the [redacted] Public Library on Saturday, February 11, 2017, as my family does from time to time. I was really disappointed in the library display for Black History Month. Black History Month was the conception of Carter G. Woodson, a historian who conceived of what was then called Negro History Week as a time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black people throughout history. I wanted to share some thoughts on how the library could do a better job of capturing the spirit of the month.

The current library display for Black History Month, which I took some photos of which I have attached here, is focused on three aspects of Black history: slavery, caricatures of Black people under Jim Crow, and Barack Obama’s historic election, with an additional black-and-white poster board featuring images of famous Blacks with little exploration of who they are or their significance to Black history. I found the focus on the caricatures of Black people, which was the most striking aspect of the display, without any extensive explanation of how vile they are, particularly offensive — especially for young children who are unable to read and may not understand what these images represent by merely looking at them. Also, while Barack Obama’s election is an important, significant event for all Americans, it is not by any means the only achievement by a Black person or event in Black history worth mentioning.

Photo by Glodi Miessi on Unsplash

While these three points are, without question, an important part of Black history, would it not be more meaningful for members of our community to learn something new and perhaps uplifting about Black people, cultures, diversity, and history on a local, national, and international level? I find the constant repetition of these themes, not just in your display, but generally, limiting and oppressive in that they reinforce and perhaps overemphasize the significance of slavery and segregation to Black identity, without ever focusing on some of the amazing achievements and accomplishments of Black people around the world and throughout history.

While I’m sure that the librarian who curated the display worked hard on it, the end result is disappointing and discouraging. Thankfully, there are still a few weeks left. Below are some thoughts on aspects of Black history worth focusing on. You could touch on a number of these topics, or present a deeper focus on any individual topic.

We could focus on the impact of Black scientists. Patrons are probably aware of the movie Hidden Figures, which focuses on the achievements of three Black women scientists at NASA who worked to launch John Glenn into space and whose contributions to the space program had previously been overlooked and minimized. They might like to learn that just this past year, NASA named a building after one of these women, Katherine Johnson. She and her cohorts may have been an interesting feature for this Black History Month in particular as library patrons could both check out the book Hidden Figures and even have an opportunity to go and see a movie that highlights their contributions.

We could focus on impactful Black politicians and civic leaders beyond President Obama, and mine our rich, bipartisan Massachusetts history for that. We elected the second Black governor in the United States: Deval Patrick, a Democrat. We also elected the first Black senator after reconstruction, Edward Brooke, a Republican. It might be interesting to highlight that Massachusetts residents elected the first Black mayor in our state only nine short years ago (Setti D. Warren).

The first Black woman to graduate from medical school (Rebecca Lee Crumpler, née Davis) did so here in Massachusetts at the New England Female Medical College, now the Boston University School of Medicine.

Massachusetts is also home to the first Black woman published author (Phillis Wheatley). How nice might it be to share her poems with your patrons?

America’s first Black lawyer, who passed the bar in Maine, worked in Massachusetts for some time as a justice of the peace before the Civil War (Macon Bolling Allen). And the first Black lawyer to ever argue before the Supreme Court or speak before the U.S. House of Representatives, also before the Civil War, was a Bostonian (John Sweat Rock).

The American Ballet Theatre has just elected its first Black principal ballerina in its nearly 100-year history (Misty Copeland). And Bill Russell was the first black NBA coach, for our own Boston Celtics.

A Black inventor born in Massachusetts held patents on producing carbon filaments used in lightbulbs that were instrumental to the work of Alexander Graham Bell (Lewis Howard Latimer).

We also have a bit of Black civil rights history here worth mentioning. Frederick Douglass settled in New Bedford as a free man and launched his abolition campaign from there. He even once spoke at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.

We also have a storied military history. One of the first, if not the first, units of African American soldiers in U.S. military history was the 54th Regiment from Massachusetts.

Surely focusing on any of these achievements or historic figures or even current figures and their contributions would have provided a more uplifting and inspiring display. Imagine a Black child visiting this library, like my [child], and this being their introduction to Black History Month. What feelings about his identity might he leave the library with? Imagine the same for a White, or Indian, or Asian child. What kind of messaging does the current display send to our children or even adults who likely already know these three elements of Black history? Does it teach or does it reinforce old tropes that are already known and accepted? What about those of us who may want to learn more about Black history than this broad stroke that is painted over and over again? What would we take from the display? It hardly lives up to Carter G. Woodson’s high ideals.

I would like to suggest a curation process next year in which children spend the fall choosing the people or topics they want featured in February, so Black history is not just a month, but a learning tool to ensure our children have a fuller and more enriching understanding of our rich history. I would be more than happy to discuss this further. And I hope that moving forward, the library can present a Black History Month display that all of us can be proud of.

Sincerely,

Bridgette L. Hylton

And here is an image from the first year that we collaborated with the library on the display:

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She/her. I write stuff. Published in Human Parts, Zora, AnInjustice!. #BLM http://www.Instagram.com/BridgetteWrites https://www.facebook.com/BridgetteHWrites

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