Holding Out Hopes, Hesitations, for Black Herstory Month

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Holding Out Hopes, Hesitations, for Black Herstory Month

Pamela Merritt

Celebrating the good during Black Herstory Month is as easy as it is tempting, but exploring and addressing the injustices that remain unaddressed is required for the month to be meaningful.

When a colleague sent me a Choice
Feminist Campus post, Black
HERstory Month
, offering
ways to observe and honor Black History Month from a feminist perspective,
I was intrigued.  I have long been conflicted about Black History
Month because of its superficial presentation — and I am not sure celebrating
Black HERstory Month is the answer I seek.

If you Google “do we still
need Black History Month?” a ton of articles and posts pop up — either
defending or critiquing what has become a must-do month long celebration
for many schools, organizations and companies.  Last year, the
actor Morgan Freeman added fuel to the already smoldering fire when
he called the idea of Black History Month “ridiculous” during an
appearance on 60 Minutes.  Many share Freeman’s views that Black
history should be a part of history everyday, while others argue that
while a month recognizing black history may have potential, Black History
Month as it exists in the U.S. has become too commercial to have any
real social value.

Renee of Womanist Musings has a guest post up on Feministe titled Black History Month in which she explains why she has deliberately
not done a “celebration post” for Black History Month.

“For a brief 28 days of the
365 that make up a year, people will briefly acknowledge the contributions
of blacks and then return to privileging whiteness in every single social

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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I tend to agree with Renee and
have been exasperated by the number of people who want to specifically
celebrate this year’s Black History Month because we just elected
this nation’s first president of African descent.  It feels forced,
obligatory and downright inappropriate when so many communities of color
are struggling to survive the same sea of societal toxic waste resulting
from the lack of privilege that they faced last year.

I can’t help but think that
Black Herstory Month is destined to that same fate as Black History
Month, even though I really like the idea of studying and honoring the
contributions women of color have made throughout history.

When I was a young child, Black
History Month was celebrated through traditional examinations of slavery,
the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equal education.
The unique contributions women of color have made and are making were
often overlooked, and I was left feeling invisible during a month that
was supposed to increase my visibility.  That lack of visibility
continues — and was particularly felt during last year’s election
coverage when women voters and black voters were spoken of as if black
women voters simply don’t exist.

So, I wasn’t shocked by the
continued failure to mention Shirley Chisholm’s name during the historic
2008 presidential campaign even though her presidential candidacy in
1972 foreshadowed many of the issues and controversies last year’s
race resurrected.  Chisholm became the first black woman elected
to Congress in 1968, and ran for president in 1972.  An examination
of Chisholm requires an examination of why her candidacy was not viewed
as viable and why history has failed to acknowledge her run and it is
clear that such an examination wouldn’t fit into the “we’re gonna
make history” election year narrative of 2008.  If Black History
Month functioned properly, Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run would
have been top of mind for political pundits searching for examples of
the challenges candidates of color face when they run for statewide
or national office.  If we are ever in a position to assess the
impact of Black Herstory Month, name recognition among the general public
and within communities of color for Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis and
Cynthia McKinney as African Americans who have run for President of
the United States must be a measure.

And I’m not unmoved by the
proposal to increase our historical awareness of women of color.
In fact there may still be something to this Black Herstory Month idea
if we use it right. The Choices Feminist Campus post provides some good
suggestions for ways to explore and celebrate herstories in a meaningful
and educational way.

We can host regular screenings
of films or documentaries about, directed and written by and starring
people of African descent.   A favorite film of mine is Chisholm
’72: Unbought and Unbossed
which explores Chisholm’s 1972 run for president.  The documentary
is a fascinating look at herstory too often overlooked when we explore
women in politics.  Screening and discussing this documentary provides
an opportunity to learn more about Chisholm’s historic run for office
and explore the issues raised during it that are still relevant today.

Or perhaps we would prefer to
host a ceremony or gathering to pay homage for past sheroes and heroes
of African descent who have contributed greatly to our world.
I was able to participate in such an event a few years ago.  Participants
were asked to research women in our families who were part of the Civil
Rights movement.  We then honored those women through personal
accounts, performances and song.  Preparing for the event gave
me the opportunity to collect personal histories from my relatives.
I was able to build a herstory of my Grandmother and get to know her
through the context of the struggle for social justice.  I discovered
that my Grandmother was active in the anti-Lynching movement, participated
in boycotts and marches and fought for better access for women to health
care more than 50 year ago.  Honoring my Grandmother provided an
opportunity to explore not just what she was able to accomplish but
also what she was prevented from accomplishing.

The ideas presented for Black
Herstory Month are all doable as regular projects throughout the year
and they all provide opportunities to celebrate as well as identify
inequalities in need of correction. The problem is that many schools
and institutions see Black History Month as just another diversity “to-do”
that, once completed, lets them off the hook for the rest of the year.
So they place a few ads on Black radio stations and sponsor a couple
of events then call it a day.  The challenge is figuring out how
we can sell through the benefits of a comprehensive program to those
same schools and institutions when so many of them enjoy the ease and
sense of accomplishment that comes with single serve diversity initiatives
per month.

In many ways it falls on the
students and employees of such institutions to push and challenge for
more meaningful interactions and events that truly reflect Black History;
for the inclusion of Black history as a part of American history and
women’s history and LGBT history and you get the picture.  And
there can not be enough emphasis put on the word “meaningful,” because
celebrating the good is as easy as it is tempting but exploring and
addressing the injustices that remain unaddressed is what is required
to achieve meaningful.

As Rene of Womanist Musings points
out at the conclusion of her Feministe
guest post
, engaging
in dialogue and listening to each other is part of the solution.
Without that dialogue Black Herstory Month is doomed to fall short of
being an instrument of social justice and far more likely to evolve
into just another vacant minority marketing campaign scheduled in the
month of February.