February 24, 2011
This month is Black History Month -- or as a friend of mine says, for those of us who write or speak on Black issues, "Negro Employment Month." But in all seriousness, all the awareness and marketing aside, I'm not sure how much Black history is actually read, taught or learned during this month, or any other month. That's too bad, because knowing Black history is critically important for the health and wellbeing of Black people and contributes to a more robust and rounded understanding of the American experience for all her citizens. If we don't know where we come from, how can we determine where we want to go, or know, once we arrive, that it is not the same place that we left?
I remember visiting my grandparents in rural Mississippi as a small child. Older people would ask, "Who do you belong to, child?" Being a smart alec from the North, I would always say (to myself -- I was a smart alec, not a fool), "I don't belong to anyone." But the question came from a place of love and wisdom. It is a question, if repeated more frequently today, would serve us well.
Our elders were trying to help us to understand our heritage, to understand our history, to understand that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, with the hope that that understanding would influence our dreams, aspirations and behaviors.
I belonged to my Big Mama and my Big Daddy, Ms. Lillian and Mr. Clarence as they were called by everybody else. Understanding my connection to them -- and to a whole host of uncles, aunts and cousins -- helped me to feel connected and protected me from feeling marginalized or isolated. It influenced my behavior, because I knew that whatever I did was a reflection on them and that it would get back to them. There were consequences to my actions; that was and is an important lesson because our actions do have repercussions. Those consequences may not involve a switch from a willow or sycamore tree, but especially when HIV is involved, the consequences can be far more devastating.
The editor-in-chief of the Black AIDS Weekly, Hilary Beard, tells the story of how one of her great-great-grandmothers was raped by both massa and the overseer and bore children by both men. All of her offspring identified "colored," but some of them looked white. The ones who could pass for white helped their Black relatives and others escape from slavery. When Hilary is asked to violate her value system or behave in ways that would endanger her life or dishonor her ancestors' sacrifices, she calls upon her knowledge of what her ancestors did to survive and help others to do so as well. Knowing "who she belongs to" helps guide her life choices.
Last week in this publication, we ran an editorial from Cleo Manago challenging Black AIDS Awareness Day. He suggested that we should have National Black Restoration and Self-Love Day instead. "Once basic issues of self-love, self-esteem and cultural affirmation are clearly defined and addressed, it is then, when Black people will begin to really care about HIV/AIDS," he wrote.
While I disagree with binary analyses, which suggest that the solution is either A or B, prevention or treatment, domestic or global, gay men or women, Black AIDS Awareness day or "Black Self-Love" day, HIV is a complex issue and requires complex solutions. Cleo is right: Ending the AIDS epidemic in Black America will require Black people learning to love ourselves more. And this is something we cannot look to the government or anyone else to do for us.
When I was ten, Big Daddy died. I remember my mother sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me, "Don't cry for Big Daddy. He lived a long life," she said. "He made a difference." Making a difference is what Black History month should be about. One step toward that end is for more of us to know our history, know where we came from and know that we all belong to somebody.
Yours in the struggle,
Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only National HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. He can be reached at PhillWilson@BlackAIDS.org or follow him on Twitter @iamphillwilson.