Black History Month is upon us, and with it comes the barrage of people, educational institutions, organizations, and corporations presenting massively oversimplified understandings of Black history to the masses. While it is comforting that people are talking about Black people (for once), the history of Black communities and the sheer diversity of Black experiences cannot be summed up by a simple quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared on a Facebook page.
But Black History does not start with slavery and end with the Civil Rights Movement. Black history is as diverse as the communities that it represents. It is more than the whitewashed (and factually incorrect) animosity between MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. Black history is Black Nova Scotian Viola Desmond refusing to give up her seat at a segregated cinema in New Glasgow on a frigid evening in the November of 1946, and it is Black queer and trans activist Marsha P. Johnson’s integral role at the Stonewall riots on a scorching June night in 1969. It is the history of struggle and revolutions that made Haiti the first contemporary Black-run nation-state in the world, and it is the boats of slaves which carried my ancestors to the Caribbean many years ago. It is the story of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the Black francophone that founded the city of Chicago, and it is Black Lives Matter interrupting the 2016 Toronto Pride parade. It is all of these things and innumerable more, because Black history is as diverse, multifaceted, and resilient as Black communities.
Unfortunately, however, the massive oversimplification of Black history, and of the Black experience more generally, is extremely dangerous for Black communities. It implies that Black communities are monolithic, monocultural, and unchanging. But Black people can also be members of other communities, and while our experiences in those communities might be influenced by our culture, our culture shapes the communities of which we are a part. The influences of Black culture and history are intrinsically linked with the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, for example, to the point where many cultural references present in LGBTQ+ communities stem from the Black ballroom scene in New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s. These influences are so omnipresent because of the adaptability of Black queer and trans people, a community of which I am issue and which has profoundly shaped my life.
Black history is rife with hardship, and it is marked by brutal dehumanization, slavery, and significant denials of the humanity of Black people. But it is not only that. More importantly, Black history are innumerable stories of inspiring resilience. It is a history that never forgets its legacy of struggle from which it is issue. Most importantly, though, it is a living history. It is a history with so many permutations that is in constant development based on the actions of those at the front lines of our movements. Let us as Black people continue the legacy of those that came before us, and create a Black history that is based on the power and the diversity of our communities, together.