Every year, the month of February is dedicated to celebrating African American excellence and honoring Black people’s contributions throughout American history. Black History Month, which started out as a week-long celebration in 1926 initiated by historian Carter G. Woodson, has become an official month-long celebration of African American history. We invited Veronica Wylie, a graduate fellow of the Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education project, to tell us what Black History Month means to her.
“You don’t have to be conscious all the time, Veronica. This isn’t the middle of the Black Power Movement, and it’s not even February.” A teacher said this to me when I was in high school, and I never saw her in the same light. She genuinely liked me and I realize that she perhaps did not mean any harm. She was frustrated that I had opted not to stand for the singing of the national anthem (kneeling had not yet become a “thing”). When she asked me why I chose to sit, I explained that I could not rationalize standing because my people had been brave throughout America’s history but were still not free. When she made the comment, I for the first time understood the notion of twoness that W.E.B. DuBois had written about.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.- W.E.B DuBois
I was not angry that she wanted me to stand for the anthem. I was, however, disgusted that she did not see how the flag’s stars and stripes only testified to my history 28 days of the year, and even then the testimony was incomplete. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were but a small piece of my history, but that was all I had ever really been taught in school. As far as I was concerned, the Stars and Stripes represented for me an institution which refused to acknowledge the wholeness of my being. An institution which reduced the fullness of Black existence to slavery, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and Rosa Parks being tired. It was a travesty, and every person attending these institutions without outside access to the rest of my history was missing a crucial piece of the American pie.
How, though, do I articulate this to someone in a position of authority who could make such a flippant remark? I was Black 365 days a year. In that moment, I made it my mission to be conscious all 365 of those days. No one would ever convince me that I needed to turn my consciousness on and off to relax those around me. This realization led me to embrace Black History Month even more than I already had.
At the time, Black History Month was bittersweet for me. It had gone from being Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s proposed Negro History Week to being Black History Month, so it was definitely a symbol of progress. But it was also a devastating blow each February when we re-memorized the “I Have a Dream” speech but never discussed King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or his views on the Vietnam War. The bitter taste of never learning about the contributions of Benjamin Banneker, Garrett A. Morgan, and Dr. Ernest E. Just, was absolutely overwhelming. Certainly my teachers could have managed to at least mention Shirley Chisholm, or my idol at the time, Barbara Jordan.
As bittersweet as the month was for me, the exchange with my teacher made me understand its meaning so much better. Black History Month is not merely a celebration of icons. It extends beyond mentioning key names or noting contributions. In that moment, and in the years since, Black History Month has morphed into an opportunity to educate America and the rest of the world about the ignored contributions, successes, and strength of a people who have been overlooked for more than 400 years. It is an opportunity to expose people to the inherent value that we have as a people, and to put into action the principles upon which Black Excellence has been established.
Learn more about the Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Science Education project:
Veronica Wylie is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and administration at Jackson State University. Learn more about Veronica in these two bio-narrative videos: Veronica Wylie on her journey and research in pedagogy, and her advice on teaching, studying, and anti-racism.