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What Does Black History Month Mean To You?

What Black History Month Means To Jesmyn Ward, Author

The small private Mississippi high school I attended never celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday. For years, I was the only Black girl in the entire school, and even when there were 2 of us, and around 5 Black boys, it still wasn't a priority in a school of a little over a 100, where nearly everyone was white and moneyed.

We had Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's and summer break off, and even President's Day, but nothing for Dr. King.

My mother, however, did not care whether the school was in session. Every King day, she kept me home, and I invariably spent the day running through the woods near my house or if the weather was bad, sitting under our trailer or under the trees with my brother and sisters, who attended the local public school and were always off for the holiday. Sometimes, we listened to a radio, and I remember feeling a kind of tremulous pride when the local black station played songs that rhymed "sing" with "King" in a chorus of layered, loud voices: in those moments, my mother's decision to keep me home, and my own indolent joy in staying home for the day, seemed an important assertion.

What I learned of Black History when I was younger was personal, built on a family history of resistance, because in a largely white private school in the South, even in the 1990s, Black History wasn't a top educational priority. Here's some of what I've learned from my family: My great-grandfather had some land and money, which he used to build a small, one room school in the 1920s and hire a teacher to teach the Black Creole children in DeLisle up to the seventh grade. This is where my grandmother learned to read.

Later, this man, my great-great-grandfather, who brought education to the Black children of his community for the first time, would be shot and killed by White "Revenues," bleeding to death in the woods near his still. By 1965, the one room school was deserted, and the Black school-age children of DeLisle attended the local Black school, Randolph, which was located in our nearest neighboring town, Pass Christian. In 1965, my mother was one of six Black students to enroll in second grade in the all White DeLisle Elementary School. The local Catholic priest, Father McClune, asked the Black families in DeLisle to take their children out of Randolph, and send them to the White school in DeLisle, to help integration. My mother says the White students never bothered them, but some of the teachers hated teaching Black students, and spoke to them as if they were idiots.

A friend's writing a history of Black neighborhoods on the Gulf, a history that hasn't been documented until now. I would like to have learned some of this as a child. But I see now that my own family's stories are contained in the wider story of the Gulf Coast, and probably the country. There's a familiar shock when I read it. When the first elementary school was opened for Blacks in North Gulfport with a class of 81 first graders, the superintendent of schools originally decreed that there would be 6 months of school for Black children, and 9 for White.

I recognize that deprivation, that malicious intent predicated on race: I've called that recognition blood dread. And yet, what I didn't learn and wish I had was that we fought these restrictions, overcame our own fear and anger and flourished, despite everything. These neighborhoods thrived: there were black dentists and doctors and funeral homes and filling stations and churches and beauty shops and community centers that doubled as libraries. There was a public phone service. Residents banded together to build their own fire station, and they paid $12/year each to keep it open. People like my great-great grandfather built schools. I am 34 years old, and I am just now learning how my family's story is a part of a greater, national story.

Those miraculous neighborhoods in Gulfport, like my own, are plagued by drug abuse and economic desolation today, and that is testament to that other history, the history of our subjugation. We live that history every day. This is why Black History month feels like a miracle, like an act of defiance, like hope, every February. It means we have the forum to learn more about who we were, burdened with the weight of a terrible, ever-present discrimination, and who we may yet be.

Follow Jesmyn Ward on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jesmimi


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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