Over the years, I have done a lot of Black History Month event planning. That’s because I have worked primarily in the government sector, which celebrates all of the designated national heritage observances. My efforts have often been more about getting the job done than providing insight into the Black experience in America. And wondering if using the “I Have A Dream” speech again in February is too soon after the Martin Luther King Day prayer breakfast in January.
That’s what happens when you rush to fill Black History Month with your experience as a white American who knows some Black people instead of listening to the Black experience. Let me tell you what I mean. In high school and college, there were a few Black students in my classes. I was friends with some of them. Later, I dated Black men a few times. But in my teens and early twenties, I was too busy learning what I was becoming to really dive deep into the idea of viewing the world from the perspective of others. I needed to be confronted with something startling to really see how the world was.
And of course that would happen with time. A Black sailor who worked for me at a Navy hospital was denied a lease in Portsmouth, Virginia, clearly because of his race. I was 24 and his boss. He was 18 and newly married. We were both furious. Neither one of us knew what to do. Finally, I just said, “Why let that bigot get your rent money? You need to find another place to live.” And I tried to help him and his wife find a place, and they did, but it wasn’t as nice or as close to work. We reported the landlord to the Navy housing office and the Better Business Bureau. I’m sure we didn’t do nearly enough.
And I have been able to see great things, too. I’ve had the extreme pleasure to know Lt. General Arthur Gregg, the first Black three-star general in the U.S. Army, thanks to serving on a non-profit board together. He joined the Army as a private in 1946 and retired as a three-star general in 1983. He served in two wars, did hard jobs, and served in the very turbulent 1950s and 1960s. I had the special privilege of learning business, management and leadership with him through board management. I had the real joy to have dinner with him and listen to his stories—spanning from a boyhood in South Carolina in the 1920s and growing up in the Great Depression under the shadow of Jim Crow laws to meeting the great love of his life, and many fascinating anecdotes of postwar Europe and integrating the Army.
It seems to me that in the last five years or so, the stories of Black America are finally getting fuller exposure. Some are on a national scale, thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement, some are more personal. But much of White America has alerted to the fact that having Black friends and being stirred by Dr. King’s words are not the same as experiencing race bias first-hand. And it’s not the same as experiencing life as a Black American.
I think of two white friends of mine who are now the fathers of Black children who have shared stories with me. One has taken braiding classes to learn to fix the hair of his adopted Black daughter. I love that. The other story makes my throat catch a little. My friend is married to a Black woman and their biracial son is viewed by the world as Black. Teaching him to drive, my friend realized he had to teach him how to be pulled over by law enforcement and stay safe—in a way that differed vastly from his own drivers’ ed experience as a white kid in New Mexico. That shouldn’t be, but it is.
So for me, among the whitest people I know, Black History Month is about listening. 2021 has been a wonderful year for it: a 22-year-old Black woman stole the show at this year’s presidential inauguration with a gorgeous poem about America, patriotism and hope that enthralled everyone, regardless of color. Amanda Gorman, America’s Youth Poet Laureate, wowed so many Americans with “The Hill We Climb” that she was asked to read one of her compositions at the Superbowl. A poetry reading at the Superbowl! How exciting, as this year’s Black History Month comes to a close, that we as a nation are clamoring to listen.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.