Happy February! If you have no interest in reigniting your observance of Black History Month, read on for tips on how to continue doing the same tired thing every year.
1. Definitely put together a display for Black History Month and then never again feature black authors or stories at any other time throughout the year.
While Black History Month is a wonderful time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to literature, history, politics, and culture, sometimes it’s used as a crutch to avoid promoting these individuals and these stories for the rest of the year. And while booktalking and displaying people by all races and ethnicities is something to be done year-round, ask yourself if you are integrating these books into general displays or if your habit is to always mention that an author or character is black, instead of focusing on the vampire romance or the great writing or the hilarious flying panda bear, you’re not going to get the circulation you want. And you’re being unfair to the book. White authors are recognized for their stories, not their identities. Give that same courtesy to everyone else.
2. Do not take this time to audit your collection and your own reading choices to see if your understanding of African Americans in literature is limited to historical fiction and biographies.
While we should never stop teaching about slavery and civil rights, we do a disservice to readers of all backgrounds when these are the only types of books with black characters that we expose them to. You might have noticed that black people exist today, too! And while race informs and shapes every person of color’s life, we also get in fights with our friends, need a date to prom, and have to battle evil wizards like white characters get to do in fiction. Go out of your way to find contemporary realistic fiction, science fiction, and fantasy with black characters or inspired by African mythology or folktales. Authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Walter Dean Myers, and Angela Johnson are must-haves. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series stars a black character. And for perspectives and booklists on people of color in speculative fiction, Bitch Magazine‘s series on Girls of Color in Dystopia is a great starting point, and of course, everyone should be reading Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo’s Diversity in YA.
3. Absolutely ignore Afro-Latinos and the African continent. Only acknowledge American-born blacks descended from slaves.
Not all black people identify as “African American,” because race and ethnicity are not the same. There are first generation Americans with parents from Nigeria. Some black families trace many generations back to Latin America and have no felt connection with the African continent. There are people of African descent who speak Spanish, Portuguese, or French. There are new Americans who are refugees from Sudan. There are mixed race celebrities you never knew were part black. Dig into your collection for literature, poetry and history from places steeped in black culture, like Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Pull out some memoirs by immigrants and refugees like Ishmael Beah. Even during slavery, there were freeborn blacks living in the North and the South. There is a world beyond the usual, and even though this month may only be observed in the United States and Canada (the UK has an observance in October), that doesn’t mean our worldview should be so limited.
4. Display only the names that everyone will recognize and the movements everyone is strongly aligned with. Never be a little polarizing or provoke debate or discussion. New perspectives are bad.
Martin Luther King, Jr.; Toni Morrison; Jackie Robinson; Barack Obama; Oprah Winfrey; Langston Hughes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. How about Malcolm X; Alice Walker; Satchel Paige; George Washington Carver; Soledad O’Brien? Getting better. Or dig in even more. Philippa Duke Schuyler; Rebecca Walker; Sam Cooke; Marcus Samuelsson; Fran Ross; Helen Oyeyemi; Bessie Coleman; Josephine Baker; Lewis Latimer; Madame C.J. Walker; NicolÃ¡s GuillÃ©n… Do you know all of those names? There is always someone new to discover.
5. Make a point of implying that black history is finished and doesn’t continue to shape America. Never highlight living people or contemporary issues.
I think that says it all.
While Black History Month is just as problematic as it is wonderful, there are plenty of ways to shake things up and make observing it feel fresh and new once again, whatever your opinion of it.