People cheer enthusiastically at MLK rally in Seattle. Photo by Joy Francke.
Black History Month is about appreciating the history, achievements and struggles of people of African descent globally.
“What is ‘black culture?’” Channing Martin said. “Is black culture the way that I walk or the way that I talk? Usually, when ‘black culture’ is being utilized in an environment, it is the majority of the time referenced by white people selling an idea or a product.”
Throughout Black History Month, people find a variety of ways to celebrate their culture.
The concept of black identity and culture is complex and differs from family to family, introducing further variability to the celebration of Black History Month.
“Not everyone comes from a background where they can say ‘my family is from Congo’ or ‘my family is from [this place],’” Martin continued. “Yes, my ancestors are from Congo centuries ago, but I have no idea what my culture is.”
Understanding black history and culture provides a community of shared ancestry and experiences. Connecting with this culture allows people to grow as individuals and communities and perceive themselves in a new ways.
“[BHM] opens my eyes up to my environment by making me incredibly appreciative of the sacrifices made for people of color,” Faith Osei-Tutu said.
In predominantly white environments such as Mercer Island, a strong cultural connection can provide a sense of belonging and familiarity.
“Between the time of first grade and eighth grade were the biggest years that I’ve felt the most insecure about my race and how I identified myself,” senior Nia Tate said. “I knew I was black in a predominantly white community, and I knew I was different, but I never understood why I [was] different.”
However, Martin has a different perspective about Mercer Island’s influence on her.
“I truly believe that Mercer Island has made me accept myself even more,” Martin said. “Although a lot of people might oppose this idea, I believe that MI has encouraged me to stand out and take the phrase ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ to the highest limit.”
Widespread awareness of black history can be empowering.
“I look up to [black influencers] as beacons,” Martin said. “Beacons of lights that tell me that I can achieve anything that I can think of, even if it is a little idea.”
Clubs like BSU and CARE help maintain and strengthen the black identity through education and awareness.
“To me, having a ‘relationship’ with my culture means that I have a deep understanding of what it took to get me to my current situation [where I have] opportunities my grandparents didn’t have growing up,” Tate said.
However, some choose not to forge this connection to their culture.
“It could be because of the mass police brutality; it could be for the unfair disadvantages; it can even be for the way black people are portrayed in modern movies and TV shows as drug dealers or gangsters,” Tate said.
“Either way, self-identity is on a spectrum when it comes to black culture and many people have many different reasons why they may separate themselves.”
“They have their own ideas and interests, and I have mine,” Tate concluded.
“I have learned that some of the students that are mixed do not claim their black heritage or think they do not belong in the club at all,” Martin added.
“It hurts my heart to think that because of Mercer Island, a student feels that they should hide their true self to fit in. I understand that growing up in a majority white environment can make you think horribly about one side of your identity, but every student needs to learn about who they are no matter what the circumstances are.”
“It is important for people to know their culture and embrace it because it creates a diverse community who is aware of all peoples,” Osei-Tutu said.
Though February is only one month, Martin strives to embrace this love and acceptance for her culture year-round.
“No matter what month it is, I am still black,” Martin said. “I always walk with pride because I am black. Therefore, all 365 days of the year I am black and I am proud to be who I am.”