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I want to make what is sure to be a contested assertion: The way that we celebrate Black History month will not result in a transformed or transformative society.
We live our lives as a collection of stories.
During Black History month, we often recall the important, oftentimes hidden, disregarded, diminished, even intentionally erased stories of African descended people in the United States.
We recount the amazing acts of courage, genius, artistry, fortitude, perseverance, and uplift what should be known and remembered.
Usually, it falls to African descended people to do the heavy lifting during the month to unveil these previously subjugated pieces of knowledge.
The logic of Black History Month includes an homage to respectability and meritocracy.
If the dominant community recognizes how much we have contributed to the present-day quality of life and realize how much we have overcome to be here, then maybe they will respect us, develop an appreciation of our cultures, and create equitable spaces for us to participate within a broader Civil sphere.
The logic suggests that ‘if we teach young children –ours and others- of the valiant efforts of the men, women and non-binary folks who saved our republic and are the quintessential exemplars of the fight for the freedom that the United States professes to represent, then they will grow up with a broader and more inclusive understanding of the past and present.
They will, in effect, be better people and the devastating impacts of racism will necessarily diminish over time.
I have a deep suspicion of that theory of change for one very specific reason:
The people aren’t the problem. The problem is the problem.
The dominant American narrative provides the foundational logic for the marginalizing systems and practices that characterize daily life.
Black history at its best offers a set of counternarratives.
There is an often spoken refrain about the histories unveiled during this month: Black History IS American History.
I absolutely concur with the sentiment that a full understanding of the ‘American’ story, including the United States, cannot be accomplished without a full understanding of the history of African descended people both free and previously enslaved throughout the Americas.
However, the incorporation of Black history without a fundamental and intentional recasting of the entire American narrative runs the risk that Black history will be coopted and incorporated into an otherwise deeply problematic legacy that animates and perpetuates the current supremacist, individualist, patriheterocisnormativeness that defines our current condition.
I do not believe that the ornamental inclusion of historical moments in an otherwise unjustly ordered society would be a mark of an equitable or transformative community.
The title of N.K. Jemisin’s 2018 collection of essays, and short works of speculative fiction, How Long Til Black Futures Month? 1, points to what it will mean to have truly transformative communities.
Black History cannot be only about the past but must serve as a corrective for the future.
The idea of Black Futures aligns with bel hooks’ counsel:
“To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.” 2
Transformative communities are then those ordered within a narrative and based on a logic of a society that works and a society that works for everyone, every group, and everything.
Transformative societies are in a state of perpetual motion toward a context in which everyone, every group, and everything have full and equitable access to the relationships, resources, structures, and the testimonial authority needed to survive, thrive and manifest full capabilities in ways that both allow and invite contribution to the greater and common good.
Transformative communities are those that are in a continual process of seeking the most robust possible experiences of justice, reimagining and rebuilding structures that create equal likelihood for full flourishing for all throughout the entire ecology and at every stage of life.
Black History Month is offered to highlight lessons from history.
Those lessons from history are, in fact, not for historical recognition, but rather as part of the framework for a preferred narrative of a shared future.
Transformative communities are organized as a response to N. K. Jemisin’s question: There will be Black futures’ months not when we acknowledge and embrace black history but when we’ve changed the narrative to allow for a flourishing Black future.
Rev Dr. David Anderson Hooker has worked with communities, governments, and international NGOs and civil society organizations on post-conflict community building, environmental justice, and other issues of public policy and social justice. He has managed multi-party conflicts, conducted workshops, and consulted across the U.S. and around the world.
Hooker also is a lawyer who has represented the State of Georgia as an Assistant Attorney General. He has taught graduate courses in negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, conflict analysis, trauma healing, and conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University.
From 2010-2015, Hooker was a Senior Fellow for Community Engagement Strategies at the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. He is President & Principal Consultant of CounterStories Consulting, LLC, where his work focuses on narrative alignment for civic, community, and faith leaders.
Hooker is a graduate of Morehouse College (B.S./B.S.) in Atlanta, Georgia; the University of Massachusetts Amherst (M.P.H. & M.P.A.); Emory University’s School of Law (J.D.); and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (M.Div.). He earned his Ph.D. from Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
1 Jemisin, N. K. (2018) How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? NY: Orbit Press
2 hooks, bel (2003) Teaching Community: A pedagogy of hope. NY: Routledge (Electronic Page)