Feb. 15, 2023

I persist only because others have illuminated my path

Assistant Professor of English, Uchechukwu Umezurike explains the significance of Black History Month
Image of Uchechukwu Umezurike
Assistant Professor of English, Uchechukwu Umezurike Provided

This is one of the most asked questions Black people must address every February: what does Black History Month mean for you? Of course, one might balk at such a question, even though there are many ways to answer, or rather, question it.

Nevertheless, I look forward to a time when we need not ask or respond to it. Then again, could there ever be such a time? That is a question as vast as the ocean. If one were to look at the question of meaning cynically, one would ask: What has changed in the material conditions of Black life? Does the BHM make Black citizens feel less discriminated against in the nation? What happens after the celebration? Does racial injustice lessen in the following months? Where is the glimmer of hope in a time of police violence against Black folks in North America and Europe?

In this vein, one would dismiss the BHM as another gesture or celebration that says, See, Blacks are now invited to sit at the table! You could sit at the table, but it does not mean you’ll be served food. On the other hand, you could be served, but what quality or quantity was your food? Were you served with the same respect accorded the others? Indeed, it is easy for anyone to feel apathetic toward celebrating Black History Month. Sometimes I feel ambivalent myself; other times, I try to dwell in whatever delights I can afford.

February usually makes me revisit Lucille Clifton’ s poem, “won’t you celebrate with me.” Because joy is hard to come by, almost elusive, in Black communities, when terror and mourning saturate the social and psychic worlds of Black people, one cannot help but appreciate this seasonal spotlight on Black persistence. I emphasize “persistence” because how else do you live in a space that insists you are fungible, denigrates your humanity or questions your claim to life?

The visibility of Black creativity and industry in the nation is necessary. It is meaningful, given that Blackness attracts a perverse kind of visibility, or rather, popular discourse assigns it a (hyper)visibility that identifies it with pathology, criminality, negation, or monstrosity. Even as I celebrate this moment with family, friends, and colleagues, I recognize that whatever path I walk on right now has been made possible by forebears and their allies who resisted the sloganeers of hate and vendors of fear.

I persist only because others have illuminated my path with their radiant persistence.