For the most part during this month, race is the central focus. Even if we never hear another name of a Black historical figure after mandated school programs and lessons, however sanitized their legacy may be, we stand to typically gain some insight into the trials that fostered some of the benefits we enjoy today. But we can’t stop there. We have to go deeper and enrich what we think ourselves and teach our young ones about key figures who have sacrificed for us to learn (often simplified, problematic versions of) Black history and why that might be. We have to consider the importance of different experiences that do not happen to only privilege Black men throughout this month.
We have to be able to agree that there is much work still to be done. A quick glance at the news tells us the same. A big part of that work lies in carving out spaces to include the importance of gender into how we understand what Blackness is and what it has been historically. I am not saying that class or sexuality (among other identities) is not important to think about, too. I simply hope to encourage us to think more seriously about what we leave out when we only focus on race, as if we live in a world that doesn’t treat us according to our gender or other visible expressions of who we are.
However, for the few educators in and out of school who make it a priority to teach about forms of oppression, the work required to shape themselves and their students into feminists often and unfortunately goes undone. Effort to make anti-sexists who call out and actively search for ways to work against gender based-discrimination and outright oppression is scarce. This is very interesting when we consider that most teaching about oppression centers race. If students engage with just one woke teacher, that educator, more often than not, stresses the importance of individual and structural, systemic forms of racial oppression. And although this is tremendous, we can’t stop there; it’s not sufficient. We have to ask ourselves tough questions about why anti-sexism, anti-patriarchy, and anti-misogyny are not included on the agenda. There are many lessons we can learn from this observation, especially for folks of Color who experience multiple kinds of oppression at the same time each and every day. Our awareness of this is crucial, and it is absolutely essential that we begin to teach our youth and ourselves to recognize this and how our ability to see this in everyday life has been intentionally underdeveloped.
We have to think seriously about what is at stake when we don’t take the time to notice gender discrimination and grow aware of and sensitive to issues that affect folks who are not men, specifically women, and trans-people. We well know the stakes are high for all of us, but the danger in repeating wrongs of our past feels heavier and more consequential when we consider the traps that infamous misogynoirs and hoteps present as champions for the race, and for the race only. Clearly, Kimberle Crenshaw’s case for intersectionality is helpful here, like multiple cases that Black feminists made before her. But what I am trying to emphasize here is that we are setting ourselves up to fail if we honestly believe that liberation will come in the form of an end to racial oppression alone. If this administration has shown us nothing else, we have learned in this first month that this oppression thing is complicated, and multiple identities matter— most certainly gender, religion, sexuality, and class.
My point here is simple-- we have to complicate Black History Month’s meaning so we develop a deep understanding of what oppression is and looks like so we are better able to construct pathways to freedom. As complicated as things already are, we stand for them to only get worse if we continue to promote a shortsighted version of history and resolution-making that privileges certain identities while ignoring that, for example, a Black woman isn’t the sum of her parts, but something distinct all on her own. I know from experience that youth are ready for this nuance—young ones. It is often us, the adults, that hold back progress.
So, in your next mention of Rosa Parks, Sojouner Truth, or Harriet Tubman, remember to include their counternarratives and explain why they’ve been selected as decontextualized key figures; then, ask how their experiences as Black women of a particular socio-economic class and time shaped their contributions to American history. Relish the gray area. Leave with more questions than answers. But stress, above all else, that simple, single, and easy identity markers won’t get us to where we need to be headed.