Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Stay tuned for parts two and three later on during Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Lynne Graziano, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
Arthur Ashe was one of my heroes. He broke color barriers in tennis, beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, fought against apartheid, and helped dismantle the stigma surrounding AIDS at its deadliest peak.

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner
When Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at 69 she was basically broke, living in a public home, having worked most recently as a substitute teacher and a maid. Thirteen years later, Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and marked it. Walker subsequently published an article that helped return Hurston from literary obscurity. That’s to all our benefit. Hurston herself, however, didn’t need rescuing. She was an iconoclast and unafraid to do things her way throughout her life.

Her last book, “Barracoon,” a nonfiction account of a man on the last ship to make the Middle Passage, was published in 2018 — more than 70 years since she stopped working on it and a half century after her death. Why? Because she refused to compromise aspects of it believing in an unflinching accounting of history that consequently alienated various patrons. Then, and now, resistance to her writing is tied up in the idea that her use of dialects was a problem in various ways. Yes, for some, and, so is her use, or more precisely refusal to misuse, history. The result? A body of fiction and nonfiction work fitting no single narrative. Could she be difficult? Probably, as most iconoclasts are. She fell out with everyone from Langston Hughes to the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier who had hired her to cover a landmark trial — that later became a bestselling book for someone else.

It’s wonderful that her books and stories are in wider circulation now as part of the American canon. In particular, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is widely read and assigned. But there is so much more to her work. Much of it is hard to read, not because of the dialect but the brutal honesty. Her method allowed no other way.

That’s real and vital. Especially at a time when conformist pressure is all around in politics but also in literature, art, and culture, all while an arms race is on to redefine American history to fit the political stories of culture warriors on the right and left. Hurston’s perhaps more relevant than ever to American life and to anyone with, as she put it, “that oldest human longing — self revelation.”

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Brian Robinson, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t learn about Black history in school. Sure, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But I didn’t learn about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I didn’t learn about Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till. I didn’t learn about Henrietta Lacks. I didn’t learn about the many contributions Black Americans made in this country, and really in the world. I didn’t learn about Black history until I got much older and began reading on my own, watching documentaries, and visiting museums. It’s important for all schools to do a better job of teaching the entirety of Black history (aka American History!) — the good, bad, and everything in between — earlier and more often than just during Black History Month, and in ways that invite critical discussions and reflections.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Indira Dammu, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
For much of America’s history, immigration from Asian countries was severely restricted or banned for racist reasons. However, the civil rights movement, led by Black activists and advocates, helped end the race-based immigration quota system, which allowed more Asians to immigrate here and live out our pursuit of the promise of America. So, to me, Black history is very much connected to Asian-American history and our community owes a lot to the Black leaders who pursued liberation for all.

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.