I must admit, when February came around, I was feeling a few things about 2023 Black History Month.
The first was a bit of exhaustion, it has only been a few days since the Memphis Police released the video of their lynching-by-black-fists of Tyre Nichols. It was a highly publicized, marketed release, much like in American history when they used to send out post-cards of previous lynchings to advertising upcoming ones. There was something about the visual and the effect the visual made that was part of their intention.
I chose not to watch it.
Then, on the very first day, February 1, The College Board chose to release its very redacted, watered down AP course on African American history and culture as a result of the racist, fascist taunts of Governor DeSantos.
The continued attempts to erase everything that has been contributed by African Americans is unending
That and then some police departments decided to do their version of "pimp my ride" and unveil their new police cars replete with images of noted African Americans and in the black national colors. Like, we will come to kill you but give you a bit of cultural connection while we are at it.
My first few days also included a request that I spearhead a Black history service for my predominately white church (I'm in the middle of the long UMC ordination process, so we have to serve somewhere) . I had to say no, just did not have the time or capacity to plan a program when the last one I did was sparsely attended. So I said no.
Finally, there was a bit of A twitter spat with what I ultimately think were Black cosplay folks who just wanted to come at anyone who as celebrating the uniqueness of their Black heritage. After a few rounds, I decided that at fifty-eight years old and receipts in fighting for our liberation in this country, I didn't have to entertain anonymous nonsense, even their names were some weird made up thing.
So it brought me around to thinking about who Black History Month is for.
A lot of noted names in African American heritage and contributions are actually those who have Caribbean/West Indian roots. Folks like Roxane Gay or Malcolm X or Arthur Schomburg or Marcus Garvey, for instance.
No one who traces their heritage to pre-1865 United States has completely pure African heritage.
I am a proud Black woman. A Creole woman. It was a very long time before I checked that African American box because there wasn't a dot on the continental may that I could for sure say was where I came from.
What I could point to for part of my heritage was a dot on the map in the islands.
Both Haiti (Saint Domingue, to be exact) and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, are dots on part of my ancestral map outside the United States. I could point to cultural influences and have some answers to the why's of my my life.
In America, my family story is New Orleans, for generations, those that came over from the island. A few went up to St. Louis (gens de Coeulr libre) and some went to California and some went to Canada. That is the same trajectory of some others with Haitian heritage, especially Canada.
I am blessed to be able to know there is more to my story than chattel enslavement and have records going back generations. Lyon, France, Cap-Haitien, places we know, that Catholic heritage and record keeping thing. I can go back to the 1700s.
Am I Black enough to celebrate Black History in this country?
Who gets to celebrate it?
Especially now that I live in the Northeast with a strong Caribbean American heritage and attendant celebrations. I can get Jamaican, Haitian, Dominican, and Trini food within a hour drive. I can see the pride and culture all around me. I don't speak Kréyol, but the very fact that I know where my family originated in Haiti, I've been warmly accepted by those I've met.
So why do some Black folks have issues with other Black folks knowing a bit of where they come from.
Where I live, there is a strong Gullah heritage, they came up from the Sea Islands, from Georgia and North Carolina. It is replete, it is something I celebrate. Some point out the Portuguese influence in these places.
The Portuguese were hardcore slavers, brought over more enslaved Africans from Angola to Brazil than any other place in the AfroAtlantic world.
Dividing is part of what the enslavers and colonizers did.
That is what happened on my ancestral island, why there is so much animosity between Haitians and Dominicans, the only thing truly dividing them is which European colonizer enslaved their ancestors and what influence they hold to. Both have Catholic influences, both were descended from the same parts of West and coastal Africa, both have Taino influences. The Spanish did a number on the Dominican side by trying hard to erase Africa much, like Brazil. The Haitian side, replete with the deep pride of being the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, continue to have pride in this heritage of being proudly Black while still paying the price for that pride.
It bothers me, as a life observer, as one born in the United States and like a lot of Black girls growing up in the 70s, was trying to see ourselves past the slavery and only Civil rights that we barely were taught in school.
If my Italian and Irish and German school mates could be born in this country and yet have pride in their ancestral heritage, surely we could also. We had a story more than just this land
Like other Black people with heritage in the United States, it's complicated.
My heritage includes the enslavers who were of Irish, Scottish, and English ancestry - my family names on both sides that trace back generations are not originally West African.
We have one set of family names that do trace to France and to Ayiti. So my cousins with the deep records made sure we all knew our name and heritage.
My husband's family is Black, definitely Black with a few indigenous influences, mostly from Mississippi, Texas, and a bit of Louisiana. New Orleans was one of the largest markets for enslaved Africans. My husband has records back to 1820, so my children have authencity in celebrating Black History Month.
Their history is in the museum in Mississippi, they have receipts.
But for this one youngish person on Twitter who was angry that Haiti did not do enough to help free enslaved Africans in America, it was not enough to know the parts of my heritage and see how it is all connected together.
In 2023, being Black in America is under attack.
African Americans are a different ethnic experience than those who got to grow up outside the boot of racial oppression. Now, they had to deal with interracial caste systems and colonialism, but they did not have to deal with the racial trauma in schools that some of us had to deal with. The same is true for the many West Africans who live in the Northeast now. They have had other issues, otherwise they never would have left the motherland but having their racial identity challenged was not part of it.
Black people and identities from "somewhere else" have some of the exotic other and cultural connections that have enabled them to benefit from some of the things that African Americans have fought so hard to have.
It can be frustrating.
This thing in America.
Like do we celebrate Caribbean Heritage Month? What about Haitian Independence Day or Flag Day? Or Juneteenth? Or any of the other moments when we want to hold onto our humanity in a country that doesn't think we have any at all
I read and taught the 1619 Project and Four Hundred Souls. 2019 was the 400th year that Black people have been in this country with all the things we have done to build it. At 13% of the population, we still have to have disproportionately negative outcomes because we don't get to assimilate like other ethnic groups, we aren't the exotic other like still others, and don't have a cohesive language and one country of origin that enables us to form one community of mutual aid.
That is part of what chattel enslavement did - it stole language, culture, religion, names, identity, it stripped away families. Black people are literally cousins, family, in the was they mixed us up so much in the slave south.
It is complicated.
So I started to think - are Afro-Descended Americans the only ones who identify as "Black?" Is this a by-product naming of when I grew up, post the Civil-Rights and in the middle of the Black Power Movement when being Black was the identifier for all of us in the Diaspora, what connected us? Certainly it is what connected me to the South Africans who were fighting against Apartheid and I saw my first college fraternity protest of that country, tied it in to the Jesse Jackson race. It was my first tangible experience as a young twenty-something in the pre-Internet world that we were connected in this globe, more of us than of the colonizers. We had newspapers, Ebony, Jet, Essence, letters, pamphlets, we didn't have the immediacy of social media that is as fast as the cell phone.
My mind went to the books I've read and those those strong figures of Black History who were also like me, those with ancestry in the Caribbean.
People like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm and Constance Baker-Motley, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Stokley Carmichael, Antonia Novello, even Oscar de la Renta.
So many whose origin stories did not begin in the United States or their parents' stories did not begin in the United States, are integral figures in the AfroAmerican historical narrative.
I claim all my heritage.
As a Midwesterner with deep Southern Roots. Coming from Arkansas and Tennessee is as different as coming from Jamaica and Barbados, the cultural experiences and flavors of each place also shape how being Black is lived out.
I claim all of me.
So when the young Twitterians were trying to claim I was not Black enough or not Haitian enough or not any part of America enough to celebrate this month, I. had to politely put them in their place.
The human trafficking trade in human beings from Africa took out 12.5 million souls, of those 10.7 million managed to survive the treacherous crossing. Most went to South and Latin America, a great many from Angola went to Brazil - 4.8 million souls, the Portuguese and Spanish were the first in trading human lives before the British and French got into it for the benefit of their respective monarchies. 90-percent of these human beings disembarked in the Caribbean islands and SouthAmerica. The United States received 450,000 souls and then through the course of that 400 years from the first pirated slave ship that landed in Virginia until 1865 when the amendments were passed to end chattel enslavement, they utilized their own state laws and commerce of this vast land to trade human beings up and down the Mississippi River. They tore apart families, denied heritage, language, religion, custom, and culture as they separate children from parents, siblings from each other, spouses from each other, all in ways very different from how Black people were treated in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad, for example. The Caribbean places were able to hold onto more of their Africanness in identity and memory because it was more of them in concentrated numbers with more oral history to share than for African Americans.
We, born and raised in America, had to become African in many different ways.
I remember my Creole cousins with their near straight hair trying to kink it up into an Afro during the 1970s, wearing dashikis and every one was 'brother" and "sister". I was a little cousin, a little sister, watching wide-eyed as all these. young twenty-somethings declared themselves to be more than the stereotyped slave stories replete in U.S. history books.
That is part of what Carter G. Woodson was trying to get across with his development of Negro History Week.
It was for us, by us, to teach us.
To remind us.
The rest learned if they bothered to pay attention and listen, but it was really to remind Black people of the greatness that was in them and of the many things they had contributed to this land.
Our ingenuity, creativeness, and very blood, sweat, and tears are deep in the soil literally from sea-to-shining-sea in this country.
I can no more deny my Americanness than I can deny my Blackness.
We are connected in a stronger way if we see past the forces of colonialism and divide that have hindered us for centuries.
Someone commented on my post that we are all Black but different ethnically.
That's true and there is a great deal of beauty in that different-ness.
We are not meant to be alike.
Africa is a vast continent, not one tribal place, there are hundreds of tribal customs, languages religions, ways of being. To say African-American alone is not enough, it did not connect and in that new term that rose up more in the late 1990s, it is limiting in a lot of ways.
I always knew I was a Black girl, a girl with mixed ancestry, a Creole girl as my big sister told me, she the reflection of my late mother back to me. It was what we all understood of our Louisiana roots.
My ties to the island go back some generations and to some purists, I may not have a right to claim it even though I know Cap-Haitien and Santo Domingo are as real places on the map parts of my origin stories as Lyon, France and Saint Louis.
What it does to an individual to know they are from a place is roundedness, connectedness, boringness.
That is why I celebrate my heritage and claim all of it, have taught all of it to my kids.
We are in changing times in the country and the world and with all that is happening to try to erase our existence and contributions, I'm choosing to hold onto it, claim all of it, and fiercely advocate for her right to be.
I am because I say I am because my folks said I am and their folks said they are.
That is all the proving I need.
Otherwise, I look in the mirror and see nations staring back at me, I feel the rivers and oceans in every kink and coil of my curly hair. I see Ghana and other parts of West Africa when I gaze at my husband and the beautiful children we created. His deep Mississippi Black American roots and deep Africanness shows up in his hue and features that even Ghanian-Americans did a double-take when they saw him.
But there is something deep in the memory of our soul that rings up with the drum, with the 2s and 4s, with the ways be "just be knowing" that is part of our ancestral DNA that will not be denied.
So, this Black History Month, I am celebrating all of it, choosing all of it, and proudly so.
©2023. All Rights Reserved. Antona B. Smith writing as Tayé Foster Bradshaw honoring those ancestors who has stories to tell even though those names are Scottish and English and not the original Ybré or Guyol de Guiran, it is still a part of her heritage that she celebrates every time she reads, writes, sips a latte, and gazes out across the Atlantic Ocean and wonders about it all.