Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Once upon a time, I loved Black History Month.
I loved it because February was when my classmates – from elementary through high school – and I finally got our chance to shine, reciting speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and other great Black Americans. We were inspired by learning about Black inventors, scientists and freedom fighters like Benjamin Banneker and Ida B. Wells.
Then, as the years passed so did my childlike joy. I reconsidered Black History Month and realized I resented it – because it was not enough.
As a Black woman, I longed to shine all year, to see my family story and the contributions of my people reflected not only in my classrooms but every part of American life — not just at home in the Black history books I devoured.
Now, after feeling terrorized and traumatized through the Trump era, after witnessing a White supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol, living through a pandemic that continues to ravage Black and brown communities and enduring year after year of police killings of unarmed Black people — try as I might, I’m feeling anything but celebratory this February.
Watching the new documentary film, “MLK/FBI,” I was struck by these words from Dr. King just before his assassination in 1968.
“It’s amazing how loyal the Negro has remained to this nation.”
Decades later, that sentiment resonates strongly for me. Throughout my adult years, I have at turns loved America, hated America and felt betrayed by America often all at once. King’s words both justify my conflicted feelings and inspire me to demand more of my nation. Certainly more than relegating King’s contributions and the rich history of Black Americans to one month a year.
The insurrection, the continuous attempts to delegitimize our elections and suppress votes, and the civil unrest around the country to protest injustice, should serve as a wake-up call. America’s dependency on White supremacist agendas to rule the land will destroy our democracy if left unchallenged.
The documentary, by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard, is based on recently declassified files and reveals the government’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s harassment and surveillance of Dr. King during the 1950s and 1960s.
More than 100 years ago, what became Black History Month was established by Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland, in 1915.
With the nation barely a generation removed from slavery and in the thick of the Jim Crow era, which would last until the late 1960s, the men set out to create a space in society that was dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and others of African ancestry.
They called their organization the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and after the Civil Rights Movement with voices like Dr. King and Malcolm X and others amplifying the plight of Black Americans, the idea slowly gained traction across the country. In 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month official, saying at the time: America must “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Somewhere along the way, it feels like we’ve fallen way short of that mission.
It is not enough.
It is time to stop using Black History Month to sustain the lie that Black history is not American history. Their contributions have enriched the lives of every American. It’s time to face our truth and correct the record regardless of the resentment and sense of betrayal many will feel.
Now is not the time for conscientious White Americans to be merely allies in the fight for equality and justice for all. They must move beyond marching with us and become full, active partners pushing for legislative, judicial and social changes needed at local, state and federal levels in order to reimagine how our democracy functions.
Our pain will have to come before America heals, if we are serious about repairing and strengthening this republic. America’s demographics have shifted – and Black, Brown people and others who want to see a more just nation will not be bullied into silence any longer.
We understand America must be better. That is what youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman was telling us when she so boldly and beautifully spoke to us at the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris:
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Many were captivated by her words, and rightly so. But watching Gorman also broke my heart. In her I heard the voices of so many other Black Americans — Maya Angelou, Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass—all longing for justice and mercy from a nation intent on doing us so much harm.
I heard George Floyd crying out for his mama in heaven with his last breath as he was choked to death by that police officer’s knee on his neck.
America is at a crossroads. Our fate is in our own hands.
And though the violent acts and angry voices of White supremacists who are discontent with a changing world around them still ring loudly, I am confident that the resilient voices of justice, liberty and compassion — like Gorman and Dr. King and Floyd — will win out when all the shouting ends.
But we will have to boldly walk through this fire. We will have to be uncomfortable.
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Because there is no quick fix for what ails America. And nothing — not putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, or, even having one Black president or one Black woman vice president — will be enough to repair the damage that has been done to weaken our nation. It will take ambitious actions and corrective legislative measures to repair and begin to dismantle centuries of structural racism woven into our society.
So this Black History Month, I will dig deep and find that childlike joy and the pride I always feel about the unwavering determination and successes of my people. And I’ll celebrate unlimited potential, as yet unleashed, of Americans of every race.
And in the end I will always believe deep in my heart that it is only together as a nation that we shall overcome, one day.