Black History Month is more than just a month

Guest author Ann Kettles shares a deeply personal story about learning to love her blackness, why Black History Month means so much to her and how others can support the black community in celebrating.

Editor’s note: As Black History Month comes to an end we want to celebrate it and encourage our readers to study and honor black history all year. After all, black history IS American history.

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

Growing up, I didn’t want people to see my color. My parents were in the military so we moved around quite a lot. By the time I was 11, I had already attended four different elementary schools.

With each move, my dad made sure we moved to a neighborhood that fed into the best public schools in the area. He would always explain that since he did not have great educational opportunities growing up he wanted better for his kids. It wasn’t obvious to me then, but the best public schools happened to be in mostly white neighborhoods.

As a kid, all I wanted to do was fit in. On top of being the “new girl,” I was oftentimes the only black kid in my class, which meant my physical appearance made me naturally stand out from my other classmates. Besides my skin color, the most noticeable physical difference was my curly hair, and I hated it. I could never put my hair in a ponytail without it looking like a puffball, and I was too scared for someone to refer to my hair as an “afro” if I were to wear it out.

To hide the natural texture of my hair, I wore my hair in a low bun throughout elementary school and well into high school. I also started getting my hair chemically treated at the age of 12 in an effort to force my hair straight. The more I had to do to hide my curly hair, the more I envied my white classmates who had naturally straight hair and the more I hated my appearance.

The media didn’t help either. Rarely did I see mainstream media feature black women. In fact, most of my first idols and crushes growing up were white — Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Zack Morris, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Kim Basinger (specifically Kim in Batman), even Barbie! I remember wanting to look like my idols but knowing that I couldn’t.

It was hard being young and not feeling like I was beautiful simply because my hair texture was different, my nose bigger, my lips fuller and my skin color darker than the people I saw every day. My features were never highlighted and celebrated in a positive way by others, so I never saw a reason to love those things about myself.

That changed when I went to college. I was fortunate enough to attend George Mason University, a place that took pride in its diversity and celebrated differences within their student body population. In fact, it was recently ranked the most diverse college in Virginia, where I’m from. It was also within driving distance to Washington, DC, a city known for its prominent black community, and I spent almost every weekend there, going to parties, eating at restaurants or just hanging out with friends.

For the first time, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and could relate to the experiences I had growing up, which naturally built my confidence. I was also interacting with people from cultures I had never seen before. Some of the closest friends I made in college are first generation Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somalian, Iraqi and Bolivian. Throughout our days together,  I learned about their culture, met their families and participated in some of their traditions. This cultural sharing between friends allowed us to better embrace and celebrate each other’s differences, from the foods we ate to how we defined beauty, and it made us better allies.

By the time I left college, I had learned to love myself and all of my features. That self-love was not achieved through lectures or books, it was achieved by seeing the people around me be unapologetically proud to be black. Watching my friends embrace their natural hair texture and their overall blackness made me want to embrace those same things myself. I was no longer waiting for mainstream media to tell me I’m beautiful. I knew I was.

I share that story to explain why Black History Month means so much to me. It’s a month where black excellence is brought to public attention and celebrated. It’s a month where I see people who don’t look like me, celebrating people who do look like me. Thinking back to how self-conscious I felt about my skin color as a child, I wish I had seen blackness celebrated more often. Putting the excellence of the black community at the center of attention this month is so important to elevate us, especially in a world where we’re not looked highly upon.

This Bustle article also explains why representation is so important this month: “Black people are told daily — in the media, in the workplace, in the street — that they are ugly, unprofessional and violent. Black History Month is a reminder that we, like everyone else walking this earth, are a race with beauty, brains and morals.”

For all of February, the black community (and our allies) will celebrate and acknowledge the amazing black inventors, visionaries and pioneers that are all-too-often overlooked when discussing American history. We will also recognize and throw even more support towards those who are currently making history before our eyes.

I ask that you also take time out in February to help your friends in the black community celebrate Black History Month.

How? I’ve listed a few ideas below:

1) Shop at local, black-owned businesses

I use Yelp to search for black-owned business within my community.

2) Research films with black directors or films with all-black casts and watch them

If you haven’t seen “Black Panther” yet, now is a good time!

3) Volunteer your time with an organization that supports the black community

Black Girls Code is a great one and they’re in need of tech and non-tech volunteers.

4) Have a conversation with a black colleague to better understand some of their daily challenges being black

Knowledge will only help you become a better ally!

There are so many other things you can do to celebrate and acknowledge people in the black community this month. The most important thing you can do is talk about black history (past and present) all 12 months of the year. Talk with your colleagues, your family, your friends, whomever. You never know what insecure little black girl out there might need to hear you acknowledge how amazing being black is.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)