Learning from the Ancestors: Or, We’ve Been Here Before

Stock Photo of Black History Month Design

I believe in the cyclical nature of time — that the past influences the present, the present influences the future, and the future influences the past. Of course, I know that many people see time as linear, but it’s hard for me to structure my life in that way, especially since I know that my ancestors dreamed me into being.

I think about Harriet Tubman, a leading abolitionist who constantly risked her life to ensure that hundreds of enslaved people were able to experience freedom. I think about the last words she uttered, “I go to prepare a place for you,” which signal the fact that even in death, she was formulating a plan for future freedoms. I remember Frances E. W. Harper — a suffragist, poet, teacher, and organizer. I remember her anti-slavery literature, and her poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” which uses vivid imagery and metaphor to discuss the oppression of enslaved people and imagines a future land where Black people are free. I ponder the legacy of Coretta Scott King, an author, activist, and Civil Rights leader. I recall how she sent Martin Luther King a science fiction book with a letter that said, “I shall be interested to know your reactions to Bellamy’s predictions about our future.” I consider how the book and Coretta’s question implored Martin to dream of a society in which all people are free and equal, individualism has given way to collective humanism, and hierarchy and oppression are eliminated. When I look back on the Black women who came before me, I realize that I am a part of their dream. I acknowledge that, collectively, they have prepared this space for me.

I often sit in this place of remembering, but my recollections are amplified every year during Black History Month because I’m reminded of the fact that we cannot discuss Black history without considering Black presents and Black futures. The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to Dr. Carter G. Woodson who initiated the first Negro History Week in 1926. Woodson believed that looking back at the history of Black people was essential, as it could “inspire us to greater achievements.” He and his co-conspirators didn’t create the week to prize certain, prominent individuals; instead, the goal was to centralize the achievements of all Black folks — from the scientists who created new methods to enhance the overall well-being of the larger society — to the teachers who ensured that Black students received a well-rounded and historically rich education in a world that refused to mandate the cultivation our gifts — to the community partners who did whatever they could to make sure that they produced a space in which Black people could thrive and flourish. The goal was to uplift a commitment to the celebration of Blackness, a festival of love, community, and joy that honored all who participated in the advancement of Black life. He knew that looking back at our history could help to encourage Black people to celebrate themselves and their Blackness in the present and in the future.

Woodson also hoped that in the future, a dedicated week of celebrations would no longer be necessary, as he envisioned a world in which Black history and Black studies were a common aspect of curriculum and everyday life. That is, he imagined a future in which Black people wouldn’t need a designated month because all months would include celebrations of Black life. I would expect that 95 years later, Woodson’s dream would be realized. And yet, every February, I know that the dream is still on hold, deferred by capitalism and commercialization, stunted by the belief that knowledge of a few famous Black people can equate to the celebration of Black life and existence, restricted as it becomes a teachable moment for white people to understand that we, too, can be celebrated.

Picture of Apple Unity Challenge Award for Apple Watch

For example, as I was completing my workout the other day, I received a message on my Apple Watch asking me to celebrate “Black history this month and keep the momentum going all year long” by closing my Move ring for seven days in February. When I closed my Move rings enough times, I received my award — a picture of clasping hands in Kwanzaa colors. Additionally, at the end of January, I started to see pop-up adds for Teachers Pay Teachers and other cookie cutter worksheet sites that promised to give teachers the tools they would need to adequately address Black History Month. I saw coloring pages and reading comprehension sheets that foregrounded the same famous figures I learned about when I was in school, but I saw nothing that required educators to do their own work and learn about the achievements of the everyday Black people who live around them. I saw nothing that contended with the ways in which the reading comprehension sheets, geared toward mastering state standards, might be at odds with Black people who saw and see the standardization of pedagogy and education as a means to center whiteness. I saw the cover of the School Library Journal centering a story about why white children need diverse books which included a cover photo of a white child partially masked by a Black face and sitting next to a book with a drawing of Africa. I read the journal’s non-apology, a response that argued that readers were misinformed and lacked clarity, that the journal’s intentions mattered more than some readers’ interpretations, and that white children reading about diverse books is essential reading during Black History Month because the journal covered Black stories sometimes in other months.

Photo of February SLJ Cover

Woodson warned us of this future possibility. As noted on the site for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, after the creation of the week, teachers demanded materials, Black history clubs began, and people began commercializing Black life for profit. Woodson also complained about intellectual frauds taking advantage of public interest, teachers searching for ‘scholars’ rather than centering the knowledge and experiences of Black communities and Black students, and publishers scrambling to print books about Black people during the month of February. Because of this, he consistently had to find ways to promote “celebrations worthy of the people who had made the history.” He had to constantly remind people that the purpose was celebration, not commercialization, centering whiteness, or using Black people for teachable moments. Although he made those statements long ago, I am considering how the present is influenced by the past. I am considering how we are still seeing what Woodson saw, still making the same arguments that Woodson made.

As I think about the cyclical nature of time, I am contemplating what we must do to ensure that we are learning from the past and positively influencing the future, making sure that future generations see Woodson’s dreams realized. Our past has influenced the present because we are still celebrating Black History Week even though it has been expanded to cover the month of February. The present influenced the past, as Woodson and so many Black ancestors made space for the celebration of Black life because they knew of our future existence before we began our journeys on this Earth, and they wanted to make sure that we had better experiences than they did. Those of us who exist in the present must learn from the past and also consider how we will collectively influence the future. How will we ensure that when we are gone, we have prepared a place for future generations, a place where they will not have to have the same conversations we are currently forced to have every Black History Month? How will we ensure that future generations will be able to experience the freedom about which Harper dreamed? How will we ensure that we are forming new predictions about our collective futures?

We have so much work to do, but we have been here before. My only hope is that we can use what we’ve learned from the past to move toward a future we can all be proud of, a future where the celebration of Black life is a constant aspect of our everyday lives, a future where a statement like, “we center Black stories all the time” is a truth, not a weapon to re-center whiteness. Future generations need us to get this right, so we need to act like we will be somebody’s ancestors someday.