The seed that would grow into Black History Month was planted in 1915.
That year, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (which would later come to be known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). The group organized Negro History Week, which began in February 1926, to celebrate history-making African Americans; the second month of the year was selected because it contains Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. In the subsequent decades, Negro History Week became increasingly popular, partially thanks to the civil rights movement. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially designated February as Black History Month. He urged the country to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Each February, we hear about the lives of Black Americans whose names occupy history books. This year, we wanted to zoom in on the personal histories of contemporary Black women, some of whom you may be familiar with, others probably not.
These are their Black histories.
32 | California
Carrie is a creative who works in inclusive marketing and a mother of four
I’m a California baby born on the Sunday before Mardi Gras — flown from San Francisco International to New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong at 2 months old, to be baptized in the waters of Blessed Sacrament Church, where my parents were married in the summer of 1969, a birthright that mattered most to my mother and my grandmother: descendants of the diaspora, survivors of the hurricane and the flood, two women bred from the same New Orleans sweat and soil and love that made magic of my bicoastal childhood.
And my inheritance wasn’t just delivering king cake and beads to a classroom of bewildered friends on my birthday each February. It was the celebration of a life that no one expected. It was the raw, familiar cry and swaying hips of the second line. It was my mother showing her family what she’s made of — the little Black girl from the segregated South who built a life along the wide brim of the Pacific — all while my grandmother whispered novenas into rosary beads; sent prayer cards of the Virgin Mary for my mother to keep in her wallet. It was my grandmother’s front porch, Uptown on Camp Street, full of music and people I’d love all my life, that beckoned me home, again and again.
The last time I saw my grandmother alive, in the spring of 2013, I was in New Orleans for Jazz Fest with the California boy I would one day marry. She and I sat together, on that front porch, holding hands, stilling time. I marveled at her knowledge of every living thing and the uniquely New Orleanian way of naming them — like the loquats that hang from the “misbelief” trees, sweet and tart on the tongue. We talked about the big lives she’d lived through her children, through me. And she sent me home, for the last time, with a promise on my lips: to see the world in ways that her 92 years had never left room for.
So when that California boy invited me to join him on the black sand beaches of Greece that summer, I flew farther than I’d ever been alone. And the day my grandmother left this earth, I closed my eyes and waded in the Aegean Sea, dreaming up the big life I’d live and the daughter I’d have, who would one day carry her name.
61 | Britain
Bernardine is the author of eight books, including the Booker Prize-winning “Girl, Woman, Other”
The London suburb of my childhood in the ’60s and ’70s was overwhelmingly White. I was half-caste, or so-called in those days, which wasn’t considered an insult, until it was replaced by “mixed-race” and latterly, “biracial.”
Family makeup: Nigerian father with Brazilian slave ancestry; White English mother with Irish and German heritage thrown into the mix. Eight children, 10 years, I was the fourth. Other than my family, I rarely came across other Black people, and for most of my secondary education, I was the only Black girl in a school of 500 girls. I lived in a White, White world: education, history, television, films, adverts, politics, books, newspapers. I aspired to be White, and because I was ambitious, my hair was blonde, since that was the beauty ideal. I was ashamed of being seen with my very dark-skinned father, whose coloring drew attention to my own. I couldn’t pass as White, but at least I wasn’t as dark as him. We were a political household, and by my mid-teens I was going on anti-Nazi and anti-racist demonstrations, as a half-caste.
By my late teens at college, surrounded by four other Black women on my course, I recognized myself in them and soon after claimed my Black identity. I should be able to claim a White identity, of course, but the part of me that the world sees is from my dad’s genes. Most of us now know that there is no scientific basis for what we call race. Yet we are racialized, and I own it. I write my novels from a Black British perspective, focusing on the African diaspora: past, present, real, imagined. When people suggest this is limiting, I ask them if they think that White people writing White narratives is limiting.
My Blackness is the wellspring of my creativity and it represents infinite possibilities and riches.
51 | New York
Rebecca is a writer, podcast host and author of multiple books, including “Surviving the White Gaze”
It’s still so fresh in my mind. In the days after Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, my then-9-year-old son asked me if I was going to get shot because I’m Black. And then, as if suddenly making the connection for the first time, he asked, “Am I going to get shot because I’m Black?” It was a conversation I didn’t expect to have so early on, or that I even felt truly prepared to have as a Black mother. No one had given me “the talk” in my White adoptive family, despite the consistent racism I experienced throughout my own childhood.
But it was less the urgent sense of responsibility I felt to be honest with my son about the reality of systemic racism in America that stunned me, and more the absolute rage that the legitimacy of his question unleashed in me. That was when I knew it was time to write my memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze,” and that I would ultimately be writing it for my son.
In the wake of Brown’s murder, and my son’s fear for his own safety as a Black boy, I realized that the parenthetical ease with which historical Black pain and suffering had existed for the White people in my life growing up had started to rot in my brain. Their dissociation, performative concern and utter dismissal of my own ancestral ache had gone from unsavory to rancid almost overnight, and I knew I had to excavate the decay before it made me outright vengeful.
I embraced the rage, writing one op-ed after another with a kind of fury I’d never felt before. My writing voice became more succinct than it had ever been, as I interrogated memories not just as a Black child growing up in a White family — but as a Black child who would grow up to be the mother of a Black son in a white supremacist country.
These op-eds were a practice of sorts — surfacing myriad experiences of targeted racism, sitting with them, shaking them down. I hit a stride that felt honest, Black and free. Finally, buoyed by the emotional fortitude and foundation of the family I had made both with my husband and son, and my Black chosen family, I knew that I had not just survived the White gaze, but I had put my foot on its neck.
“Yes,” I remember telling my son in those harrowing days after Brown was murdered, when the streets were ablaze and protests erupted all across the country. “There is a chance that police or White people will profile you and me because we are Black. They may even want to shoot us.”
“But here’s what they’re not gonna do,” I continued. “They’re not going to make you feel any type of way about being Black, because that is the single most beautiful thing you could possibly be.”
17 | Mississippi
Madison is a high school senior
Being a Black female hailing from the Mississippi Delta is hard. I am living in one of the poorest areas in the country with little access to opportunity. Counties are still extremely polarized. Public school districts are failing while private schools flourish, and race relations are still tense. I think the beauty in my story is that I got to experience “both worlds” in the Mississippi Delta. I lived the Black experience of cookouts, Sunday evenings at the local park and church services lasting from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. But I also got to experience the “White folks” lifestyle by attending private school, with its random sleepovers and Friday night parties. I was living in both worlds, but I couldn’t always say I was living the best of them. A lot of times, I was the only Black girl in that White world.
“She’s the speck of pepper in the salt at her school.”
“She’s the fly in the milk on the team.”
My family often used these sayings to describe my identity at my school. Of course, they were quite humorous, but one day, I began to wonder, was I always supposed to be the one to add flavor to my surroundings by being the “speck of pepper?” Was I that much of a nuisance that I contaminated the pure environment like a pesky fly?
Later, I realized it’s not my job to diversify my environment or apologize for my existence.
Being a Black woman is my strength and my identity, and no one can take that from me. I don’t have to straighten my natural hair, I don’t have to solely listen to rap music, and I don’t have to use proper grammar all the time. I determine who I am, not my surroundings.
I came to embrace being the only Black girl in the room — it meant I was qualified to be in that room. I embraced my natural hair — it’s versatile. I embrace my “Black slang” — it allows me to reach new people and communicate differently. I embrace being me, a Black girl from the Mississippi Delta who is going to change the world.
So no, I wasn’t “the pepper in the salt” or the I “the fly in the milk.” I was — and am — Madison Meeks, and I am a Black girl no matter what world I’m in.
34 | Ohio
Jennifer is a small-business owner
I am a first-generation American. My family moved from Africa to the United States in the early 1980s, before I was born. I was raised in a predominantly White area with maybe one other African American family. I did not see color. I knew I was African and my neighbors and friends were White, but I didn’t realize the significance of our different races. Looking back on my childhood, I can honestly say I have dealt with racism as early as 5 years old — from being called the “N” word on the school playground to having kids throw rocks at me because I was Black. I did not understand why these people hated me so much just for being African. It was not until I was in college, in a different state, when it finally clicked: There are people in this world that do not like me based on the color of my skin. I had to grow a thick skin really quickly to deal with racism, but luckily, I always had supportive friends around me. I ended up marrying a Caucasian man, and we now have two beautiful children. But I have to teach my children the things that were not taught to me when I was their age. I see the world very differently now than when I was young. There is hatred in this world that is beyond my control; all I can do is try to educate and protect my kids as much as possible.