It was a cold, blustery morning in February of 1995. My parents and I were frantically running through the hallways of Philadelphia’s City Hall trying to find the correct room for a competition that was being held. I was the youngest member on a team of students who were participating in a citywide Black History competition and we were running late. I made it in the nick of time, took my place, and toward the end of the event, I gave the right answer that secured our school’s win. In that moment, at 7 years of age, my life was forever changed. I received a savings bond, encyclopedias on black history and culture, and was on the local evening news. I knew without question I was special and belonged to a group of people who were also exceptional and accomplished significant things.
In preparation for the competition, I had to learn and memorize centuries’ worth of black history facts that opened my mind to a world of possibility and wonder. My big sister, Shonte, would sit with me at the dining-room table and help me recall everything I had learned. I was precocious, talked a lot, and enjoyed shouting facts, answering questions, and getting a thumbs-up when I got them all correct. While walking with family in my neighborhood, I would say, “Garrett A. Morgan, a black man, invented the stoplight and automatic gas mask, right?”
Since then, I’ve traveled to Eastern Europe to share the teachings of the black freedom fighter Angela Davis to local community activists, helped launch the local chapter of Black Lives Matter here in my beloved city, and started working directly with black youth in public schools as an organizer and educator. The fierce commitment I have to black people, our freedom and liberation, is directly tied to the breadth of knowledge, history, and political education I received at an early age. I have my sister, second-grade teacher, and Black History Month, specifically, to thank.
The month of February is an offering and invitation for all people and black people in particular. Through these four weeks of celebration, we’re invited to engage in the Ghanaian cultural principle of Sankofa, which in Twi means to “go back and fetch.” It’s an opportunity to seek, find, and uplift the infinite truths about black people’s existence, experience, and contributions to the world at large, which have been intentionally obscured and erased from the national and international consciousness.
In this harrowing social and political climate, which is replete with antiblack racist sentimentality, sexism, xenophobia, economic strife, and queer antagonism, we need Black History Month now more than ever. As we gaze upon the oppression and violences of today, honesty and integrity beckon us to look through the lens of the black experience.
Black History Month invites us to name the epicenter of our collective plight, which began with the enslavement, subjugation, and colonization of black people throughout the world. Through this paradigm we become familiar with the ways black people have fought, resisted, and won the battle against our oppressors, and lay hold of the blueprints and pathways to justice, freedom, and liberation our ancestors have provided us.
As I light candles in my home tonight during this sacred month to honor the lives of those who made it possible for me to be here, I realize we all must be careful to remember and shed light on the beloved ancestors whose names and work sit at the borders and margins of the normative, respectable, heteropatriarchal, U.S.-centric black history we’ve grown accustomed to. Black immigrants, black Diasporans, black women, black queer and trans folk, black disabled people, black maroon communities, the unknown rebels and martyrs, and so many more. We owe it to them and ourselves to ensure their names, lives, and work are centered in our celebrations and joy.
Thank you for giving us a blackness and history worthy of celebrating for generations, centuries, and millennia to come.
Hakim Pitts is a professional dreamer, entrepreneur, and educator based in Philadelphia.