Attempting to Define My Relationship to Black History Month

If you’re an educator, you might be celebrating Black History Month by assigning Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth, maybe Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. If you’re not confined by district restrictions and reading lists, you might be tackling the Black Arts Movement—Amiri Baraka, or the “less radical” female members of the movement including Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez. Maybe you’re reading some James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, or Richard Wright on your own. Hopefully, someone’s reading Maya Angelou.

I didn’t read all of them in my undergrad, but by the beginning of graduate school, I was well on my way. As a new MA student, a passionate educator introduced me to bell hooks. I remember wondering why hooks wasn’t calling on white women to help overturn the patriarchy, to stop being complicit in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of the black female body. I hadn’t lived a sheltered suburban life, at least not entirely, but I was clearly disconnected from the realities of our racist and stratified society, and my body hadn’t been marked or demeaned in a way that would’ve allowed me to understand hooks’ perspective.  

A few months after starting my MA program, I was pregnant. Years later, I would realize that it was this unexpected foray into single motherhood at the age of 24 that radicalized me as both an educator and a woman.

I still can’t imagine what it’s like to live at the intersection of woman and blackness, but I have lived the past two decades of my life at the intersection of woman and disability. My identity has been marked by my son’s profound disabilities—nonverbal Autism, severe cognitive impairment, and a seizure disorder. As such, a trip to the grocery store isn’t just an exercise in enduring the male gaze, but one that’s additionally riddled with everything from fear to ignorance to disgust.

But after being immersed in disability culture for 20 years, I feel like I’ve moved a little closer to true empathy, a little closer to understanding the weight of #BlackLivesMatter. We have lists in the Autism community too—lists of victims of police violence (some lethal), reactions born out of fear and decades-old stereotypes.

In the 21st century, poetry has re-visioned itself in the image and likeness of its predecessors— its focus shifting once again to civil and personal rights, the de-stigmatization of race, gender, sexual identity, mental health, and neuro-atypicality. Thus, my role as an educator seems obvious, especially given that my syllabi have never been censored, especially given that no parents have ever called to complain about the ways in which I’m radicalizing their children by exposing them to the poetry of Audre Lorde and Amiri Baraka. And if we don’t expose our students to difference, they’ll inevitably fear it, or at the very least, they’ll have very little interest in discussing it or understating it.

RD is the founding editor of TRR.