WELL, WELL, WELL... Guess What Time of Year It Is?
If you know me, there are 5 times of the year I get excited about:
- August - my (and it seems like everyone in my family's) birthday month
- Halloween - who doesn't like free candy?
- Mardi Gras
- Black Friday - because... deals! (I got a TV last year, 65 inches for under $160.00. Did I need a TV? No, not at all. Am I still walking past where I should hang it up? Yes, I sure am. It was a completely superfluous purchase based off my biased mistrust of Samsung products...but it was a deal!)
- February for Black History Month! - the shortest month of the year
June gets a honorable mention for Juneteenth. To be clear: no, I don't dislike Kwanzaa. The tenets are ones that many communities should adopt, but it does not make the list mostly because I was raised with the tradition of having to "make" your gifts and to quote Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Wilkins, "Ain't nobody got time for that".
Ok, so maybe we are a tad early this year, but for good reason. This year, SJSU King Library, SJPL, and SJCC are working together to collaborate and share many exciting events to celebrate Black History Month. Some of these events are starting before we even get into February, which is why I felt I needed to get this out to you ASAP. My hope is that many of you will be able to attend some of these wonderful events — see the Art of the African Diaspora exhibit hosted by San Jose State University or visit the San José Public Library California Room to finally see Edmonia Lewis's collection I mentioned in previous blogs.
In Truth, All it Takes is a Spark
This week we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and what that legacy means to us today. Every year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History chooses a theme that focuses on one element of Black life, history, or culture—setting the tone for how we should celebrate. Thinking about Dr. King seems like a fitting start as the theme for Black History Month this year is "Black Resistance". More often than not we find ourselves comparing today's movement to The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. What is "acceptable" resistance versus not acceptable resistance. What sparks Black resistance and what quells it. Even in my own professional sphere, these are questions many of us find ourselves reflecting about when we think about these last few years since the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that sparked protests in 2020.
Often when we think about Black history, we tend to focus on Black resistance. We concentrate on great leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hammer, John Lewis, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass—mostly on their actions and works of resistance. We forget, at times, that Harriet was born Araminta, and Fannie Lou Hammer was a victim of forced sterilization—a common occurrence for poor Black women seeking gynecological treatments during that period in the south. These great leaders didn't all start out with lofty dreams to save all of the Black race from oppression and pain. The reality is often Black resistance starts off as merely Black survival.
The threat of being forced (sold) south, away from family. Being denied at the right to vote. Wanting to sit down at a restaurant. These are little freedoms that many of us take for granted everyday. Those personal acts of civil disobedience may have started solely for the betterment of themselves, but often became the catalyst for life-long activism that was far more reaching and long lasting. That is what I want to leave you with—this first blog for Black History Month—thinking about the small injustices you may be ignoring everyday.
Your First Takeaway
I come from quiet folks, the opposite of my spouse. I will not bore you with a deep discussion on high language vs low language communication cultures, just know we are different. Beyond the cultural differences, sadly there is an organic disability that is partially hidden by my family's silence, as many of us with expressive language delays, my child and myself included. This delay usually is noticeable when I am exceptionally tired, or I am too excited. Sometimes I reach for the wrong word, or I physically cannot say a word or make certain word sounds. As a child, it was slightly embarrassing; and as a parent, I see my child struggle with the same issue.
However, I will share with you three things my parents shared with me and that I often share with my daughter:
- You do not have to be loud to be heard.
- You do not have to sound intelligent to say the right things.
- Don't talk about it, be about it.
- If you never say a word for yourself, speak for those who have no voice.
I will give you an example as that is high language at it's finest:
I once attended a professional conference prior to the pandemic. I won't say what conference and what year, though I do remember it vividly. It was the last day of what I would have considered a conference I NEVER wanted to attend again. I had spent most of the conference either hearing about or experiencing microaggressions from other professionals in my field. I was ready to go home. However, this was a professional conference, which meant that at the end, vendors—instead of shipping books back—either gave them away or offered them at a steep discount (remember, I do like a deal). Even then, I was focused on diversity titles, and there were two books I had been eyeing all weekend. When it got closer to time, I directed my spouse to get in one line as the vendor was going to hold the title until he got to the front while I got in another.
I had been patiently waiting (at the front of my line) when I noticed a commotion at the front of the line. I had directed my spouse to stand in. He was a solid 15 people back so he couldn't see what was happening. At the front, were the women who had been picking at me all weekend trying to invalidate another young woman taking space in the line.
Essentially, they were telling her she had no right to be there as she wasn't a "real professional" (she had a vendor credential — which actually meant she could have come in hours before the rest of us). They told her she hadn't been standing there (she had been — remember, I was watching for several hours so I knew the line order). Finally, I overheard them say something along the lines of it was people like her that made the conference bad. What did that mean? Black people? (She was Black.) POC in general? Young people? (Though they didn't look much older.) The interaction had been going on for several minutes and the young woman was in tears, trying to defend herself.
Usually, I mind the business that pays me, and I avoid confrontation. I am not afraid of conflict, but I do not seek it out. There were people all around, who—like myself—had been watching these women gang up on one Black woman, and they were doing nothing. It was like everyone was frozen but those women and myself. Maybe it was the long weekend culminating in frustration, or perhaps, in the back of my mind, I remembered what my parents taught me.
Whatever it was, it was a spark.
I wasn't loud. I didn't use all my SAT words. However, I remember telling that young woman, "fall back I got this". When I was finished, she got to pick her titles first before the lines moved, and they were silent. The young Black woman hugged me and said thank you. I got back into my line (no one questioned me jumping back into my spot), and when I got settled back home, I sent the nastiest professional compliant I have ever written to an organizing body. I also didn't renew my membership for several years until I felt the culture had changed.
Now I'm not telling you this story for accolades or applause but to hammer down the point — all weekend long, I had let individuals ruin my experience, but the second I saw it happening to someone else, I had to move. It is easy to look around and hope someone else will do something. Standing up for others is risky. Sure, I didn't feel that my life was in danger from those women at the conference, but in another setting it could have been. I understand wanting to ensure our own safety and well-being over a strangers.
Nevertheless, it is when we look beyond just ourselves that we truly model activists like Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer. Resistance does not live in the large grand gestures but the small. It's the barely seen, the things we do when no one is watching us — those are things the that make activists.
This is what I challenge all of you to do...resist in small ways everyday.
And as always...this will not be the last blog for Black History Month, so please check back in often.
More Reading for Black History Month
Local Black History in the California Room
Please Visit the California Room to Look at our Local Black History Reference Materials and see Edmonia Lewis's work:
- CA Room Local Reference Title: People and Issues Civil Rights in San Jose the 60's and 70's
- CA Room Index: African Americans
- CA Room Local Reference Title: Some Early African-American Settlers in the Santa Clara Valley
- Edmonia Lewis presentation by the San Jose Links
- Tony Alexander and Paul English speak at East Side Dreams