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A Student’s Deeper Look at Black History Month

Op-Ed submitted by Tanisha Jae Newton (she/her pronouns)*

Black History Month was created to pay reverence to the thousands of Black people who contributed their excellence, transformation, and healing to a race-divided world. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, this month serves as an annual celebration about Black people and Black culture. As we celebrate each year, it is rare that we collectively discuss the full diaspora of Black liberators who waged love and justice against intolerance (like Bayard Rustin, Marsha P. Johnson, Bessie Coleman, Sojourner Truth, and Benjamin Banneker); instead, we only seem to praise the same well-known, watered-down stories about Blackness.

Many of us will learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout Black History Month. Each year, we hear speeches and learn more about Dr. King’s successes. We will probably not go any deeper, though: we will not encounter his shortcomings in the New York economic campaigns, his debilitating depression, nor his supportive team of Black organizers who co-created the social change that Dr. King is given credit for. It is not our goal to become hypercritical of Dr. King or other well-known Black leaders. It is imperative for us to break down mythologies about Blackness nonetheless.

Because we only learn about a select number of Black people — and we only get a small snapshot of information regarding these legacies — we build a false narrative of Black excellence in America. We begin to inadvertently associate Black leaders with superheroes who were obviously “good” or who were well-received as they emerged. This is not productive or accurate. In turn, today’s Black excellence (like Colin Kaepernick) is seen to be inflammatory and divisive. Dr. King was hardly seen differently than a pot-stirrer in history’s “real time,” and by failing to accurately celebrate his Blackness and its wholeness, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to understand our current Black power.

By studying the “nice” parts of Black history that we like most, we lure ourselves into thinking we cannot embolden a new society unless we are just like Dr. King. Instead of believing we are capable of changing the nation, Black people are tricked into believing that a mystical, wise savior will come create equality for us. This year, we will begin to change that.

As your student continues on their journey at Boise State, I challenge them to check the narratives we circulate, opt into, and celebrate. Empower your students to:

  • Go beyond the well-known (and often misconstrued) legacies about Blackness
  • Explore and debunk the mythologies that we were taught, unpacking this affect on our histories, present, and future
  • Push our educational spaces to bring awareness to several overlooked Black leaders, reversing our lazy habits of recognition

Twenty-eight days does not seem like a lot of time to undo the habits of lazy recognition we have fueled, but we do have ample time to critically redefine our views on Black leaders, legacies, and narratives. Black excellence does not end once February ends, nor does our time to collectively rejoice its wholeness, scope, and depth.

*Tanisha is a history and secondary education major with an emphasis sociology. She is an inaugural member of the Inclusive Excellence Student Council and a board member of the Black Alumni Chapter at Boise State University. She also works alongside the board of the Idaho Black History Museum while student teaching at Borah High School and working part-time with youth activists at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.