There’s something that needs to be said before we go any further: Black history is American history is the world’s history.
That said, there’s no denying that some histories are told more often than others. Those narratives get told over and over again, changing just a bit with each retelling until one day we’re misremembering history and calling the transatlantic slave trade an overseas work exchange.
But what about the histories that hardly ever get told?
Black History Month is a time where we remember the crucial contributions of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. We learn about prominent inventors like George Washington Carver, creator of peanut butter, and Madam C.J. Walker, inventor of the hot comb. While understanding how these notable African Americans have influenced American society and history, we must go beyond this surface level understanding of Black contribution. This starts with turning attention to the most marginalized voices in our society–Black queer folks and Black women.
When we think of civil rights leaders we don’t often think of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man who was also MLK’s mentor. Queer Black women like author Alice Walker, artist Audre Lorde, and activist Marsha P. Johnson are obscure names on any day of the year, including during Black History Month.
Since 1928, when Black History Month was just starting out as Negro History Week, the time set aside to honor Black folks’ contributions to history has been given a guided theme; out of nearly 100 recorded themes, only two have centered Black women and absolutely zero have centered Black queer people. That’s a problem.
While unfair negative life conditions for Black Americans continues to be a contemporary point of concern, we must also turn our attention to the specific forms of inequality Black queer people and Black women face in our country. For example, sociologists have identified the wage gap as a gendered and racialized issue in the U.S., but it impacts Black women in such a way that they make even less money than the average woman, according to the National Women’s Law Center. A study conducted by the Harvard school of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR found that LGBTQ+ people of color face disproportionate discrimination in hiring practices and police interactions. These are just some of the ways that differential treatment even among Black people can manifest.
And when we consider those who are both Black women and LGBTQ+, some concerning incidents stand out. Take for instance the four Black lesbians killed within a week of each other in December–we didn’t see outrage on social media or major news coverage of their murders. The seemingly invisible plight of Black women and queer Black folks in the U.S. keeps a lot of the population from recognizing that serious problems even exist.
The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the need to address state violence against Black Americans, however media attention tends to primarily focus on the cases of Black men. This can unintentionally further marginalize some of society’s most disadvantaged members (read: Black women and Black sexual minorities) because it keeps them from being centered in earnest conversations about how to improve the Black experience in the U.S.
So far, we’ve pointed out a major issue with the way we often celebrate Black History Month. However, we don’t believe in highlighting an issue without offering a plausible solution. Here are a few suggestions for how we can all begin to celebrate Black history more inclusively:
- Commit yourself to discussing the contributions of new Black faces, not just the Civil Rights Leaders and athletes we’ve studied since elementary school.
- Intentionally read works by authors who are either Black women or Black sexual minorities (or both).
- Consider donating your time or money to charities whose mission is to support Black women or Black queer people.
It’s important to remember that Black history is more than just slavery, Jim Crow, and reconstruction. Black history started way before the slave trade began, and it’s being made everyday by Black people of all ethnicities, skin tones, genders, and sexualities. Make the effort to explore it all, because like all Black lives, all Black history matters.
TehQuin D. Forbes is a graduate student in sociology, and his research interests include identities, stratification, intergroup relations, and social change.
Taylor M. Jackson is a graduate student in sociology, and her research interests include race, gender, and representation.
The featured image is from WCU.edu.