five young creatives discuss black history month's place in america today

This year, the month celebrating the achievements and history of black people has taken on a whole new meaning.

by Lynette Nylander
09 February 2017, 2:35pm

February marks Black History Month in the United States. In a nation where race relations between blacks and white have quite literally been sewn into the soil of the land, Black History Month is a remembrance of strength and resilience as well as a past peppered with sadness and persecution.

This year, Black History Month takes on a bigger purpose. As Trump rounds out his first month in office with executive orders ostracizing whole religious groups, he's also making pitiful attempts at engaging with the black community. Chiefly, through 'listening groups' featuring Omorosa Manigault — his reality TV puppet and director of communications for the Office of Public Liason — and Ben Carson, a failed presidential candidate and Trump's nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's abjectly clear the current commander-in-chief sees the future progress of the black community with little regard.

It's important the reverberation of celebrations dedicated to the achievements of black people throughout history lasts longer than the month such echoes are officially allotted. It's especially important in a time when what blackness means, what it implies, and more aptly, what people may perceive it to be can result in the loss of life at a moment's notice. A beacon of light during these dark times is America's young black community. Imbued with a relentless and unwavering political and social consciousness, this generation will drive America forward, even when its government will not. We asked five leading black creatives, all living and working in the United States, to talk about what Black History Month means to them.

Chaédria LaBouvier, writer, activist, and Basquiat scholar

Black is, as they say in fashion, the Queen of all colors; it is Vantablack to slightly-burnt beige. My Black reaches from the enslaved geniuses of the Deep South, the Texas-Louisiana Creole enclaves, Harlem that sings in my heart and las negras that gave Cuba its rhythm. So to re-name "Black History" as "African-American History" is a purposeful assault of the expanse, the inclusion, the complexity of Black. I have to reject that the recent attempt of the American president — and a White supremacist — to define Blackness for me. And it's not that I don't think that African-American achievements shouldn't be the center of Black History Month; I think that they should and it should remain that way. But we were Black before we were sanitized into "African-American" and I reject the hypocrisy of genteelism when America is still quite genocidal towards Black bodies. So my hope is that Black History continues to exist, in a self-determined way, rejecting the genocidal genteelism that drips from "African-American History Month" and that those descendants of slaves and those that come to America and benefit from her largess because of what we built, choose to celebrate and remember this month as they see fit.

Tyler Mitchell, photographer and filmmaker

This month is getting tiring. And I don't mean that to be dark. I'm just being real. When am I gonna stop being apologized to? When are we gonna get featured in mainstream forms of media year round? Not just when programming for black artists is convenient or 'makes sense' for your agenda? When is Kerry James Marshall going to get a section in my modern art history textbook? When are we gonna stop being only called black artists? When are we gonna be called artists? When are we gonna be people year round? When are we no longer going to be killed off? I don't need a Black History Month to celebrate my legacy. Black people, we already have a legacy. It's whether this world is going to accept that fact or not.

Phoebe Collings-James, artist and model

I feel pessimistic; each year that goes by that we still need a BHM, is another year that the world has not woken up to the fact that Black History is White History. It is the History of the world as we know it. The race divide was an invention of white supremacists to give erroneous reason to the massacre and subjugation of peoples we now call black. So it is not an uplifting moment for me to think about the black people who inspire me, because BHM makes me remember, as if I need reminding, just how mad and resentful I am. For my family and friends who work in schools, as writers, or in healthcare it is often the one month they get to have a voice without fear of being ostracized within white institutions that practice systematically, white liberal and class-based silencing.

Emmanuel Olunkwa, writer and photographer

Black History Month for me — and for my peers — is about self-preservation and self-awareness. In light of Mr. Trump's inauguration, the legislature that he and his various committees have begun to enact has put pressure on many people who have been complacent over the last few months and years, when the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and politics itself had become a spectacle. I am wary of the recent participation and protests because they all seem to be a reaction to something that has long been in the works and could have been addressed long before November 8, 2016. With recent historic reworkings — Trump's election, the cabinet nominations and confirmations — the world feels very different. I have heard people say that we have gone back fifty or sixty years or so, and I feel that this response is a bit naive. None of these issues seem new. Control over women's bodies has always been up for debate. People of color have always been left to their own devices to fight against stereotypes and violence. History works by repeating itself — never linear, it loops all while tricking us into perceiving progress. 

As an American — black, queer, able-bodied, and privileged — I have taken some time to think over what my place is in this continuous movement toward resistance. Do I want to protest weekly? Should I be donating to the array of institutions whom are actively fighting for human rights? Are the other organizations outside of the ACLU that I could and should be donating to? Is protesting enough? Is rioting enough? Should I be educating myself? Preserving and prioritizing myself, so I can be a resource throughout this time of community-building? The current political climate requires organizing and self-care. For me, Black History Month is a time to reflect on both the sacrifices and the accomplishments of my peers and those who came before me. It's time to embody their strength and have the courage to fight for the rights of marginalized people, break down systems, and reconfigure the social, economic, and cultural forces that drive our capitalist system. I want to find the best use of my resources and champion the tireless work of others until there is a political revolution. This is the time to put in the work and to stop policing others for falling short of how you believe they should be organizing and protesting.

Marjon Carlos, Senior Fashion Writer Vogue US

28 days.

We all know the shortest month of the year can hardly withstand the centuries' worth of black narratives and cultural production that the holiday is meant to celebrate. But let's forget about time. I mean, I know I do — I think the impact extends further than any length of calendar. Black History Month may come around once a year, but I'm always thinking of the black experience and history in my every day. It's an unavoidable subject as a black woman living in modern America, and as a writer, it's practically my life's work. The holiday really just fosters the indelible connection between black folks' past and present, but it's not the connection. Rather it's a reminder that we have to stay conscious, stay woke as we push forward into a ceaseless continuum of time. Black life, black history is infinite.

Black History Month
Tyler Mitchell
Emmanuel Olunkwa
phoebe collings-james
chaedria labouvier
marjon carlos