Engaging the Other Side of Black History Month

Engaging the Other Side of Black History Month

By R. Adens, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

In the U.S, February is Black History Month, which is a time to reflect on the contributions and challenges of the varied Black cultures that have contributed to our country. For many, it is a time of celebration, reflection and gathering (as we learned in Merion Mercy Academy’s Black Student Union showcase last week). Taken seriously, it can be daunting to figure out just the right way to engage in and recognize the contributions and work of Black Americans.  

For a long time, I waffled between celebration and reflection, trying to find a balance that feels celebratory while also challenging me with the knowledge gleaned from the deep philosophy in the Black American experience. Zaretta Hammond, a well known scholar of culturally relevant teaching and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, offers helpful language to describe the two sides of my dilemma. She explains that there are surface culture engagements and deep culture engagements—each neither good nor bad and both having their place. 

Placed in the context of positive engagement with Black History Month, surface culture would focus on food, dress, music, etc. These engagements are about feeling good, and are “low emotional” charges that don’t inspire challenges to one's mindsets and practices. These are great activities that are important for a strong scholastic culture, but while they are fun, they don’t quite capture the full spirit of the Black American experience.

Surface culture’s partner would be characterized by Hammond as deep culture. She argues that deep culture is best understood through the expression, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” It describes a core or root of the vast experiences and ways of knowing that are embedded during one's early childhood years. It is not static; one’s deep culture may grow and evolve. Deep culture evokes a particular worldview that engages how we experience the world, how we understand knowledge, and collective notions of fairness, spirituality, etc.—think of the roots of a tree, deeply embedded and solid.

Deep culture for Black Americans taps a rich vein of experiences that includes both the tragedy of slavery and its current manifestations in the prison industrial complex, as well as the joys and triumphs of the civil rights movement and many more. Black Americans are both citizens and strangers, free and enslaved, and present but not accounted for. These contradictions create a dissonance that allows one to both be a part of the whole while observing as separate. These experiences call us to take seriously the warning that the potential for bias and its associated violence is still present and ready to be acted upon.

Taken seriously, we must ask ourselves what long term engagement with the celebration of Black history would look like beyond parties and other surface engagements. I would selfishly answer daily practices, preferably those that take us out of our normal bubbles of knowledge and experiences. As I attempt to honor other non-dominant communities, like the Lenape people whose unceded land our school resides on or the LGBTIA+ community for whom I hope to be considered an ally, here are some family activities I use with my daughter to practice what I preach:

  1. Engage: Be willing to talk and learn about racism and examine those uncomfortable feelings that may arise. Look for documentaries, books and other opportunities to lean into the discomfort. Engaging that feeling affirms that you are taking the pain of another seriously. I recommend adults watch a documentary titled 13th, while children read Born on the Water.

  2. Push Past Politics: Our political framework flattens the experience and voice of non-dominant communities. We can find talks in museums and events to attend where the community most affected by the topic can speak for themselves, however, we normally shortcut this task and start with a source like Phillymag.com

  3. Interrupt: Unconscious bias and microaggressions have a significant negative impact on non-dominant communities. I make certain that I understand and know what these are so that when they happen, either within my household or in public, I ensure that my daughter knows these are biased behaviors and are wrong. This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewel provides a teen-level quick read on these topics. Jewel’s wonderful writing has been useful in our family discussions and daily practices.

Your practice for celebrating Black History Month should reflect you as an individual as well as the interests of your family. While surface celebrations are meaningful, ensure that you find a way to celebrate all aspects of the richness of the Black American experience—its food, music and dance as well as its lessons, philosophies, and visions for the future. Understanding the contributions and ongoing challenges of Black Americans is an important step toward decreasing racism and promoting equity for all.