Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Three)

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 featured responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part three in the series, read parts one and two here and here.

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

Ebony Lambert, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I learned little about Black history in classrooms, despite attending predominantly Black schools. But my parents made sure I learned my history at home by sharing their lived experiences. My father often talked about growing up on the farm where his parents had been sharecroppers, describing his younger self as silly and a little mischievous. My mother spoke about what it was like to attend newly integrated schools in the former capital of the Confederacy, and to be a young Black girl full to bursting with laughter and a love of soul music.

My parents’ stories highlighted the embodied nature of the history we discussed abstractly in school. Learning about their lives was a powerful reminder that Black history is much more than the few extraordinary people it’s often reduced to, and more than stories of subjugation. Black history is expansive. It captures the resilience, creativity, and full humanity of everyday people making a way out of no way.

Valentina Payne, chief of staff to Andrew Rotherham
When I reflect on what I learned of Black history while I was in school, what stands out most is how much I didn’t learn. I learned about the tragedies faced by Black Americans, but I never learned about the people who sat by and allowed it to happen. I learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but I didn’t learn that more people were against him than on his side when he was still alive. I learned that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, but I didn’t learn that she was taking a stand — I learned that she was a tired, older woman who didn’t want to have to make the effort to move to the back. I read literature about the relationships between white and Black people, rather than reading about the Black experience outside of its proximity to whiteness. I learned almost exclusively of tragedy, rather than Black joy, creativity, and triumph. I didn’t learn from a Black educator until I was in college. There’s so much that I didn’t learn until later in life, and I still have so much left to learn.

Melissa Steel King, partner, Policy and Evaluation
When I think of how I first learned about Black history, two specific children’s book titles from my childhood in the late 1970s come to mind. One was a coloring book called “Color Me Brown,” featuring drawings and poems about 29 notable African Americans. The other was the Golden Legacy Illustrated History series — a set of 16 beautifully drawn comic books recounting great achievements by Black people in America and beyond (my brother and I particularly loved the one about Black cowboys). At the time, we just enjoyed the stories and pictures, but it turns out it was a beautiful gift our parents gave us because these books ingrained in us very early an awareness that Black history is more complex than just one or two stories in the margins of a textbook; we were confident in the knowledge that Black and brown people had contributed to world history in all sorts of creative, trailblazing, courageous, memorable, fierce, colorful, and ingenious ways.

DaWana Williamson, partner and chief operating officer
I grew up in a home where there were daily conversations about the contributions of those who came out of the African diaspora. This was everyday life for my younger siblings and me growing up in a multi-generational home that included both my parents and my maternal grandad, lovingly known as “Papa George.” To this day, my mother has a huge framed map of Africa showing where slave ships docked and captured humans, taking them from their homeland, never to return. I was immersed in the lessons and contributions of these people in my home and in my Baptist Black church.  

The only thing I remember learning in my public schooling about Black history was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X’s rage as perceived by the white majority, and the usual suspects of inventors and writers such as Daniel Hale Williams, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Thurgood Marshall, among others. Not that they are insignificant, but, truly, they represent such a small cross-section of Black history and the impact of Africans’ contribution to America and the world.  

I do remember having a “classroom” in my bedroom and teaching my friends what I called “real” Black history ​​— one of the gifts of the informal curriculum that comes from growing up as a teacher’s kid!

Thomas Gold, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
Black History Month, which started to be officially recognized in 1970, didn’t play a big role in my early schooling in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the last state to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday. This lack of recognition of Black leaders in the annals of American history is just one of the reasons why many Americans have very little exposure to Black writers and thinkers. When I was in college, I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement. It’s a full-throated defense of the use of peaceful protests as a means to fight unjust systems and to push for systemic change. And it motivated me to study political science in graduate school and learn about social movements. 

So, when I think about Black History Month, I think about the huge contributions that Dr. King and others have made toward democracy in the U.S. His legacy couldn’t be more relevant today as we find ourselves at a political tipping point, with growing divisions along the lines of race, region, and religion, a steep decline in the belief in democracy, and only one year after a mob attempted an insurrection of the U.S. Capitol. According to a March 2021 Pew poll, only 45% percent of Americans are satisfied with the way democracy runs in the country. There’s a deep lack of trust in democratic institutions — Congress, the courts, and the press — and as we have been seeing over the past year, a belief that the election system is somehow “rigged.” 

But there’s hope. The summer 2020 protests demanding justice for the killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women underscore the centrality of Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent protest in the democratic system. It’s possible that if and when we reach the other side of this period of political polarization, our democratic institutions could emerge stronger, more equitable, and more resilient. 

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?

Cathy Thomas, executive assistant
Congressman John Lewis is someone I consider to be a Black historical hero. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him, and when he died, I knew our country lost a truly great man. Well known as a leader of the civil rights movement, he was also an advocate for the women’s movement, immigrants’ rights, and he was an early defender of LGBTQ rights. As a young man working in the struggle for civil rights, he was arrested and beaten, yet he was not deterred by the brutal violence he and other protesters faced. Through it all, he never became a bitter man but maintained a philosophy of nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation. His legacy of getting into “good trouble” to effect change for our country is an inspiration to so many.

Catch up on parts one and two in Ahead of the Heard’s Black History Month series here and here. And join the conversation @bellwethered.