Reflections on Black History Month 2021

2020 has been a seminal year for Black history, present and future in the US, as well as globally. Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, which have been ongoing since 2013, have spread across the world. Only in the US, an estimated 15 to 26 million people participated in the protests by mid-2020, making it the largest movement in the country’s history, while many more participated across 60 countries in all seven continents. The magnitude and reach of of the movement is stunning, and during these extremely difficult times, it gives me some hope to know there are so many people fighting for justice and equality everywhere.

I first learned about Black History Month in the mid-2000s, when I arrived in the US as an international student at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. I took a work-study job at the campus cultural center, which was founded as a result of student protests for racial justice on campus in the 1980s. As the curator of the student gallery, one of my first assignments was to help organize an exhibit for Black History Month, which coincided with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that severely affected the predominantly Black and working-class city of New Orleans. The government response to the damage caused by the hurricane was extremely delayed as well as violent. (It took more than a decade for the police brutality cases from this time to be settled, in late 2016.) Many of my classmates went to New Orleans to volunteer to help with clean-up, and came back to share stories of the devastation of communities, as well as those of solidarity among people.

Nearly a decade later, during my first semester as a graduate student instructor at CUNY, Hurricane Sandy stormed across New York, and I found myself teaching “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster.” Surprisingly to me at the time, many of my students at the time believed we now lived in a post-racial society, and that things had changed drastically for the better. Teaching introduction to anthropology, most of which focuses on the basics of the social dynamics of race, class and gender, sometimes felt like teaching history. Halfway through my PhD, leading up to the 2016 election, the mood in my classrooms changed drastically. My required course was suddenly of greater interest, and students wanted to know more about systemic violence and inequality — how it started, if it has been like this all along, and what other places in the world were like compared to the US. Along with mid-century ethnographies of segregation and apartheid in the US and South Africa, such as Black Metropolis and Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand, I started teaching Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. In the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray, one of my colleagues got detained during an evening protest, and I filled in for him the next morning, in case he didn’t make it out on time for class. Upon learning the reason for my colleague’s absence, the students’ excitement for news from the ground was palpable, mixed with concern for his well-being. I showed the Central Park Five documentary to make a connection to local history, followed by a discussion.

I can’t fault my earlier students for their optimism. Coming to the US from the Middle East in the 2000s, I had an understanding of the violence that US foreign policy was inflicting on the world. The Iraq war was raging on, and in 2003, an estimated 10-15 million people across the world staged one of the biggest protests in world history against the war. At the same time, even though I was aware of the Black struggles for equality within the US before I arrived here, it took me a long while to understand the magnitude and reach of systemic racism still present in the US, especially against its Black population. A couple of decades later, I am still learning, every day, about anti-Blackness in the US and globally, as well as about the struggles for justice, equality, and solidarity that people have waged which make the world a better place for all.

One of the people I am proud to learn from is my colleague Kashema Hutchinson, who is an Assistant Editor of the Black Language Syllabus. Together with other scholars and educators, she creates content for Black Language Homework, offering resources to provide deeper understandings of Black language. Check out Kashema’s latest post on Black Language and Hip Hop, where she teaches us how Black artists from hepsters to rappers have served as Black language scholars. Among other featured content on this website, I also highly recommend Dr. Lisa Green’s lecture on African American English (AAE), which explains the core patterns of AAE. As a language enthusiast, I really enjoyed learning more about AAE, and I think Dr. Green’s teachings should be required content for all educators who teach native speakers of AAE.

One of my goals for learning more about Black history in the US this month is to attend some of the virtual and socially distanced events organized by the NYC Parks, and to visit Black history sites in New York City – including burial grounds, memorial sculptures, the birthplace of hip-hop and the underground railroad. For those of us teaching courses, visiting these sites and writing about them could also make great assignments for students. You can also find a list of virtual events across CUNY colleges here. If you have other recommendations for learning and teaching resources, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash. Black Lives Matter demonstration, July 2016, New York City.


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