This Black History Month, Celebrate Both the Extraordinary and the Ordinary

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Maya Angelou, prolific and award-winning author, poet and civil rights activist (Talbot Troy); and Lusia Harris, the only woman officially drafted by the National Basketball Association. (@usabasketball / Instagram)

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Invisible Man”

During Black History Month, the third during a global pandemic, and at a time when history is questioned and Black Americans are erased, it’s worth noting the women and men who are historically and currently made invisible and why. 

Extraordinary figures of Black history—including author Maya Angelou, who will be the first Black woman to appear on a U.S. quarter, and the late Sidney Poitier, a civil rights pioneer and the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar—will deservedly be highlighted during this month, as will celebrities and media moguls such as Oprah Winfrey and politicians like the late John Lewis. 

However, those who often get forgotten in annual commemorations are the lesser-known and some may say invisible people who also deserve honor and remembrance—those who make up what Saidiya Hartman, in her 2019 book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, describes as “the beauty of Black ordinary.” 

Even the remarkable historic Black people often celebrated such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are only highlighted for certain aspects of their lives rather than as whole people. 

King’s daughter, Bernice King, recently made a plea on social media that people remember not only her father but also her mother, Coretta Scott King, who continued King’s legacy and made Martin Luther King Jr. Day possible when she testified before Congress in 1979, eventually leading to official recognition of the holiday in 1983. 

Similarly, ABC’s six-episode series, Women of the Movement, tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley, activist and mother of Emmett Till, and others, and the journeys of their daily lives before and after his murder.

Of course, amid celebrations of Black history are conflicts to suppress that history. These efforts include protests against Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones for  her highlighting of the year 1619 as a pivotal moment in U.S. history, or conflicts about critical race theory.

Recently all of Mississippi’s Black, Democratic senators refused to vote on a bill banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. The Mississippi senators’ walkout followed outrage against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) gaffe indicating that African Americans were not Americans.

Especially at this moment in history, it is important to recognize, acknowledge and honor both the extraordinary and the so-called ordinary people who have changed history and are making history today.

Gaining and sharing knowledge about more recent Black history is one way to complicate and broaden the narrative. While celebrating famous Black celebrities and athletes is often a given, sharing information about individuals such as Dr. Louis L. Randall, a medical pioneer who delivered 5,000 babies in Baltimore; André Leon Talley, a journalist, fashion icon and first African-American male creative director of Vogue magazine; or Lusia Harris, the only woman drafted by the National Basketball Association, can shift the conversation to lesser-known figures.

Reading and recommending recent works of Black authors that celebrate everyday lives is another way to honor this month. 

Those offerings include nonfiction such as Ashley C. Ford’s memoir, Somebody’s Daughter and Dawn Turner’s Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood and children’s books like Tracey Baptiste’s Because Claudette about Claudette Colvin, and Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

Fictional works worth exploring include Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ multi-generational family saga, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, the jazz-infused Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce, and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s historical novel, Libertie.

Numerous organizations such as the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and The Solutions Project offer more ideas on places to start reading and learning.

Of course, increased recognition and awareness are merely places to start, and even these shouldn’t begin and end in February. 

Some may say that it’s easy to assume that the only ones who make history are those who make the biggest splashes, gain the most attention, or garner the most awards and recognition. However, it’s important to increase widespread knowledge of all the men and women  who make those more visible successes possible.

Doing so not only normalizes ordinary lives and experiences but also paints a fuller and more complete picture of not only Black history but human history.

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About

Leah Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis, author of "Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narratives," and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.