Each February I remember how little I know about my own history.
I’m halfway through an interview with a seasoned black activist. They talk about black liberation and names I should know. I school my face to look anything but blank and nod intermittently to indicate that I understand what they are saying. When they argue that their vocalization suggests he’s particularly striking, I wisely dip my head and chant, “mmhmmm,” as black people do to succinctly convey shared understanding and experience. In reality, I have no idea what they are talking about.
Black History Month is the one time I truly struggle with impostor syndrome, a sneaky feeling of not being enough that experts agree disproportionately affects women of color. Every February, the editors assign me articles related to black history. They don’t know how little I really know.
Terms like “white privilege” and “restorative justice” are relatively new in my personal lexicon. I can’t tell you who was “the first black person to do X” unless you ask me about the US presidency. I never even listened to a Tupac album.
Black people typically receive this education throughout their lives, at home, and through extended family and friends, but I haven’t. I feel like I’m trying to speed up a doctorate in darkness and I’m exhausted.
I am not from a family of civil rights activists. We weren’t the type to force our way to the front of the bus or walk from Selma to Montgomery. My dad missed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech because Grandpa said it was too dangerous for him to go. As adults, both of my parents wanted to get out of the urban environment they grew up in and were more interested in following Jesus than fighting for civil rights.
I don’t remember we ever really talked about race as a family. We’ve watched movies and series like Roots, Eyes on the Prize, and Malcolm X together, and read a few foundational pieces like Narrative of the Life by Frederick Douglass and a handful of essays from WEB Du Bois, but it’s was pretty much all of my racial upbringing.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t getting messages on Blackness. I grew up at the height of the Black Respectability Policy, in which leaders like Jesse Jackson urged blacks to rise up and high profile African Americans like Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell aligned with the political conservatism “law and order”.
My mother home-schooled me using Abeka’s evangelical Christian programs – whose history books contain gems like “the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know.” not the Savior ”- and Bob Jones, a college my parents couldn’t even attend because of its policy of banning Métis marriages.
I only recently learned how deeply rooted and internalized anti-black racism is in my mother’s Puerto Rican family. My grandmother, whose own father ostracized her because she was darker than her sisters, was downright joyful when she met my white partner, who she said could help us racially “cleanse” our family. . This practice of blanqueamiento is common in Latinidad. I wonder how she felt when I was born with darker skin than anyone alive on either side of my family.
Almost 40 years later, I feel like I have let down my black ancestors by the little that I know. I’m trying to rectify this by reading, listening to podcasts, and watching documentaries, but it’s an extremely slow process.
When social media reveals everything my white friends have learned during this global racial awakening, I feel a tingling of shame that many now know more about black American history than I do.
I envy the fact that they come to lessons on the history of relatively free slavery and oppression. Generations later I still carry in my body the trauma of the people to whom the story happened.
I am sensitive to depictions of violence against black bodies and – especially because my anxiety disorder and depression make me prone to rumination – I have to be extremely careful with how much I expose myself. Last week I had to turn Documentary 13 off when graphic images of lynched people unexpectedly flickered across the screen. Other times, it’s the insidious banality of systemic racism, which has tentacles in everything from board games to farm loans, it’s too much for me to digest.
Telling the truth about black history is essential to racial healing and reconciliation in the United States, and I know it is also vital to my own “internal reparations” – another term I picked up on. from a recent interview. But it’s a protracted process, and in Black History Month, I decided that I had to cut myself off for a bit of time. I may not (yet) be able to recite the Black Panthers ten point program from memory or poetic wax on key works of Audre Lorde, but following my curiosity and researching and writing about culture black, I am able to learn from black activists, artists and opinion leaders who are making history now. I won’t be an impostor for long.