Black History Month is a time to “commemorate all things black,” in the words of the NAACP. This includes not only celebrating black achievements and perspectives, but also amplifying black people’s everyday lived experiences and recognizing the ongoing effects of historical and present-day institutional racism.
Most of us received a watered-down or downright distorted version of U.S. history in school, and while there’s been progress toward incorporating black voices into curricula and being truthful about the realities and impact of slavery in particular, we still have a long way to go. According to a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of high school seniors surveyed knew that slavery was the Civil War’s central cause, and just 12% understood that slavery was important to the Northern economy. There are still few textbook authors of color, and more than 80% of K-12 teachers in the U.S. are white. The result is that much of black history in the U.S. is presented through the lens of Europeans and North American whites.
One approach to celebrating Black History Month, then, is to support efforts — especially by black authors and producers — to reinterrogate U.S. history in ways that put black people’s experiences and voices at the center as opposed to the sidelines. In other words, subscribe to those podcasts; buy those books; talk with your friends, family and co-workers about what you’ve learned; and share with others.
In case it’s helpful, we’ve pulled together a short list of some of the things we’ve been reading and listening to that could serve as a starting point.
“1619,” a podcast of The New York Times hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones
One of The Atlantic’s 50 best podcasts of 2019, this five-episode series tells the story of slavery and its legacy in the U.S., beginning when the first slave ship from Africa landed in the colony of Virginia in 1619. Hannah-Jones — an investigative journalist and civil-rights historian whose previous work includes two This American Life episodes about segregation — shares the stories of a few individuals and families to illustrate the deep and reverberating effects slavery has had in America, from its economic prosperity to its music. She makes a powerful case that “it is black people who have been the perfectors of this democracy,” and that, as a result, our democracy began when the first enslaved African people arrived at Point Comfort 400 years ago. “1619” is part of a larger project of The New York Times (The 1619 Project) that also includes lesson plans and suggested readings and assignments for teachers.
“In Black America,” a KUT podcast hosted by John Hanson
This nationally syndicated program explores “all facets of the African American experience.” Each weekly episode features the voices of current or historical figures whose lives illustrate something about black people’s experience in America. The guests come from all walks of life and professions — from artists and athletes to journalists and faith leaders. A recent episode focuses on the Black News Channel, an independent, minority-owned and operated network for African Americans that launches next week (February 10, 2020).
“Still Processing” a podcast of The New York Times hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Aside from being brilliant writers, Wortham and Morris are both pop-culture aficionados who have nuanced and fascinating takes on everything from “Old Town Road” to why we need more bad women on TV and in films. They look at mass media through the lens of gender, race and queerness and aren’t afraid to feel conflicted and unsure about things.
Wortham and Morris’ ability to link ideas through history and their chemistry with each other lead to aha moments that are joyfully mind-blowing. This show will push you not to take any mainstream media or trends at face value.
“School Colors,” a podcast by Brooklyn Deep
Hosts Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman follow generations of parents and educators fighting for their children in one of the largest historically black communities in the U.S., Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Gentrification and other forces have changed the education landscape of Bed-Stuy dramatically. Once-overcrowded schools are now half-empty as charter schools capture a growing number of students. At the same time, the influx of predominantly middle-class white families who opt for local public schools is transforming their makeup.
The podcast explores the history of segregation and integration in Central Brooklyn and the ways they show up in neighborhoods and schools today. Griffith (black) and Freedman (white) live and work in Bed-Stuy, so they bring a personal perspective to the conversation. Their summary of the podcast ends with this: “To understand where we’re going, we have to understand how we got here. And the biggest, oldest questions we have as a country about race, class, and power have been worked out in the schools of Central Brooklyn for as long as there have been Black children here.”
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
We wanted to include a piece of fiction that taps into the very real story of generational trauma experienced by families uprooted by slavery. Homegoing is the story of how two half sisters’ divergent life paths influence the lives of eight generations of ancestors who follow them. It begins in Ghana in the late eighteenth century. Effia and Esi grow up in different villages not knowing they’re half sisters. One ends up marrying a well-to-do Englishman, the other is captured and sold into slavery. From Ghana, the book takes us on a two-century journey from Ghana to Mississippi and eventually New York. Through the voices and experiences of Effia’s and Esi’s ancestors, Gyasi illustrates the impact slavery had on both people who were enslaved and people who were not. In the words of The New Yorker’s Laura Miller, the novel “shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.”
What are your favorite written and audio works focused on black history and/or black people’s experiences and stories? Let us know in the comments section below. And if you’re looking for other ways to observe Black History Month, here are some ideas from the NAACP.