“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise.”–Maya Angelou
History is subjective truth based on objective fact.
Fact: My ancestors were slaves. Fact: My great-grandfather signed his name with an “X”. Fact: The history of my family cannot be traced beyond the Slave Trade.
Truth: How I interpret my history is not how you interpret it. It never will be. Truth is not generalizable. My lived experience is not representative of the Black community. It is not meant to be. And it never will…
…And that is a beautiful fact.
No matter your background, your history is YOU. From DNA and oral history to pictures and family traditions, my ancestry runs strongly through my veins. How my brain works, how I process life events, and how I love is a vibrant mixture of past and present—nature and nurture.
When I was a child, my parents sat me down at our dining room table. Perched on a tan, wooden seat, I listened as my parents frankly stated, “You are black”. Their faces, slightly contorted, were confusing to me. Okay, I thought, I guess this is serious? My parents continued to inform me that they were telling me this because I was to attend an all-white school and, though one’s race should not pre-determine one’s social treatment, my parents wanted to caution that I may be treated differently somewhere down the line. Though my parents’ faces were marked with unease, I did not fully grasp the significance of this conversation until a few years down the line.
Before postgraduate education, I was repeatedly told I was ‘other’. In elementary school, I was told I should be grateful for performing ‘surprisingly well’ in academia, specifically reading, language arts, vocabulary, and spelling. With maths and science, I was informed it was normal for ‘people like me’ to not earn high marks. When I could not afford school lunches at school, my classmates made sure to flaunt the money their parents provided them…Eventually, I got too exhausted to respond to various forms of prejudice I encountered every day.
When teachers say you are not ‘good enough’ to be in honours classes, when athletes label you ‘the fast, black girl’ on the track team, when classmates say you are their ‘token black friend’, what do you do?
I punished myself. I taught myself I was not worthy. I convinced myself to be complacent. I found comfort in silence. When peers mentioned my curves, I starved myself. When I was told I did not ‘speak Black’, I shut my mouth. When I was called ‘nigger’ in the halls, I smiled…
I hid the atrocities I experienced from my parents and smiled in the face of racism. Is that strength? To some, yes. To others, no. In my experience, I learned speaking up led to consequences. In my experience, I learned pointing fingers lead to all fingers pointing at me. In my experience, I learned to perpetuate self-defeating behaviours. What is discrimination without psychological coercion? Especially when you are attempting to protect your loved ones from your own reality?
Discrimination exists across generations and through history, and over time through the course of life. So, my question to you is: Does it look good on me? Does it match my eyes? Accentuate my body? Smell nice?
Black history is apparent not only in my subjective experiences. My white husband is also affected. Family members lost respect for him when he began dating a young black woman heading off to graduate school. Warm hugs morphed into insults and deliberate, belittling actions. We have even been chased down the highway in the States for being an interracial couple. We have been heckled on the sidewalk during weekend strolls.
Though words are intangible and only hold the weight we assign to them, words do not wash over us like water. Over time, with enough berating, words, ideas, actions sink in. Past the skin. Past the muscles and bones. Straight to the soul.
Should I give up?
My ancestors did not. Nor shall I.
This Black History month, I honour all those before me and hold their sacrifices, achievements, resilience, and stories closer to my heart. I allow the pride and thanks I have for Black warriors, survivors, pioneers, artists, writers, academics, visionaries, parents, siblings, and all those who continue to contribute to our history just by existing. No one asks to exist, but to not only exist, but thrive in a world that, at times, dictates your worth by how much melanin is in your skin is no small achievement.
This Black History month, I embrace my ‘blackness’. I keep my ancestry in mind. I pay more attention to the stories. I put aside all of the pain I have experienced and appreciate how far we have come, though there is so much more to be done. I humble myself and give thanks for the martyrs. During this turbulent time, whether by civil disobedience or by awareness, we stand with the Black community—the struggles, the injustices, the triumphs, the milestones, the history not only mired and pocked by atrocities, but glowing with brilliant beauty, tremendous tenacity, and resplendent resilience.
This Black History month, I honour myself, the Black community, and, especially, all those touched by Black prejudice and discrimination.
Though too many communities of ‘different’ colour, socioeconomic status, and situation (and myriad other categories of ‘difference’) experience similar pain, injustice, and bigotry, I ask we acknowledge and discuss both the objective facts of Black History and the community’s subjective truths. The Black experience is not linear. The Black experience is not generalizable. Black History is factual truth.
You do not owe believing my truth, but you owe history progress toward a better, brighter world for all of us.
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”—Maya Angelou