The morning following last month’s presidential inauguration, you may have scrolled through your Facebook feed only to find the above collage with a caption that read, “Based solely on historical contributions, should Jay and Bey be in this collage?” Call me a progressive-thinker, or maybe it’s because I spend a majority of my days with teens who have to explain to me what words like “trappin’” and “ratchet” mean, but I found myself wondering, “Why wouldn’t they be?” Meanwhile, co-workers and Facebookers truly surprised me with responses like, “They haven’t broken any racial barriers or anything,” and “Beyoncé and Barack don’t even belong in the same category.”
I beg to differ. And the question then becomes, what does it take to be considered “black history”? The significant contributions of those that today’s youth identify with may not be sit-ins for social change or marches breaking racial barriers, but does that make them any less a part of our culture? Yesterday’s Jackie Robinsons are today’s Jay-Zs in their eyes. When you think of black history, American entertainers and famous figures of today could be considered the black history of this generation’s tomorrow. If this is a collage about social change and politics, then maybe Bey and Jay should have a seat. But if we want to talk about African Americans who have made significant contributions to our culture, yes, they are in the same category as our POTUS and FLOTUS. They’ve built brands and businesses and broken records. Barack, Beyoncé and Booker T. Washington have more in common than you think: they’ve all made history and opened many a door.
Just hear me out. I definitely agree our generation is plagued by a frightening disconnect between sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders that are responsible for so many of the opportunities we often take for granted today. One of the reasons why I fell in love with President Obama’s message and mission is because I feel like he truly understands what so many of us fail to grasp: In order to make our youth understand and value the opportunities that have been presented to them, we have to meet them where they are at. How can we expect young people to truly appreciate their history and culture if we fail to acknowledge the idols who have made history during their lifetimes? President Obama got it right when he invited Jay-Z to do a voice over for his campaign ads. One of the reasons why his election was so greatly affected by the high number of young voters was because he understood that they would never hear his message for change if they felt he was someone who couldn’t understand their voice as well.
Let’s be honest, when black history month rolled around, for 28 days throughout our childhoods we saw the same names in rotation: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver, aka, “The Peanut Guy.” And while I could appreciate the paths they had paved, a part of me couldn’t truly identify with their struggle. “You have to know where you came from to know where you’re going,” sounded profound and all, but it’s only as an adult that I’m starting to realize how heavily our present successes rest on the shoulders of our history. When I was in ninth grade, all I cared about was making sure my Timberland sign showed on my boots. I cared more about what I was wearing to school as opposed to the fact the ancestors lost their lives so that I could even attend. When trying to relate anything to our young people from black history to birth control, you have to speak in their language and become familiar with what is important to them before you can attempt to teach what SHOULD be important to them. Acknowledging the contributions to our culture that today’s leaders in entertainment, politics and sports bring to the table doesn’t diminish or throw shade on the foundation that was built from those who fought and died for the belief in something better. We have to do more than throw on the Roots anthology and repeat, “People have died for the rights you take for granted.” We have to find a way to make it relate to the things they are going through today.
Closing that gap requires us to challenge our stagnant way of thinking that says that black history is something that began and ended and acknowledge it as an ongoing process that only continues to grow greater. And as with any culture, that means accepting it in its totality and not just picking the parts we’re personally proud of. What we shouldn’t do is make black history some outdated, pretentious social club that those born before 1960 have the monopoly on and act as though black history isn’t accepting any new members.
Before talking about how Sidney Poitier was the first African American to win an Academy award, try mentioning the fact that Tyler Perry is the first African American ever to launch his own major TV and film studio. Can we show the same love that we showed Jackie Joyner Kersee and Wilma Rudolph, to Serena Williams and Gabby Douglas? Maybe, just maybe, our kids will talk about Alicia Keys like we once talked about Aretha Franklin. And before catching feelings over the bible Barack Obama is using, take a few minutes to consider the fact that we have lived to see our first black president. There’s surely enough pride to go around. The fact that our leaders of yesterday have leaders of today to help bear the burden of uplifting our culture is not a threat but a credit to all of their sacrifices. And although we may not want our kids breaking out at the black history recital with a rendition of “Single Ladies,” it’s as much a part of our culture as “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Like it or not.
How do you define black history?
Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog Bullets and Blessings .