This open letter was written by Brynn Plummer, curator of this month’s SHEsBlack&SHEsProud series. Brynn is the Vice President of Inclusion & Community Relations at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.
Greetings Young&BosSHE Crew,
It is February, Black History Month. This commemorative month evolved from Carter G. Woodson’s campaign to establish Negro Education Week as the second week of February (to coincide with Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays), dating back to the 1920s. Black History Month began to be celebrated more broadly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Many of us likely remember this month as the time when our teachers dusted off laminated bulletin board cutouts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Some of us may recall reading about Black inventors like Benjamin Banneker, George Washington Carver or Madame C.J. Walker. For many of us brought up in the 80s and 90s of progressive “colorblindness” and racial revisionism, we will likely remember being taught sanitized versions of the Black American civil rights campaign that explicitly taught 1) that racism was over with the signing of the Civil Rights Act, 2) that the only acceptable forms of protest were non-violent, 3) that Black Americans’ rights were willingly handed over by the white power structure and 4) that the trend line of progress for Black Americans was on an ever-upward trajectory, starting from the end of slavery onward. Huzzah!
This is how I was miseducated, even though my father started school in New Orleans in 1960, the same year that Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Elementary School. For context, my father and Ms. Bridges are both 64 – not old even enough to receive full retirement benefits from Social Security. For even more context, this is the same year that Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Seinfeld were born. This isn’t ancient history we’re talking about; it’s barely even history.
And while I know many others whose families and schools were powerful architects of Black context and history, I believe my experience is not too far off from most millennials. So where does that leave us?
You’ll likely be shocked to know that we tend to split. While we generally have more progressive views than our Gen X predecessors on affirmative action, race and the social order, we tend to split by racial category when it comes to how we view President Donald Trump (or as I call him in my house, “y’all’s lil president”), Confederate iconography, paths to social change and so-called “reverse racism” against White Americans.
We’re experiencing a world that is held together by race, gender, money, ability, language and any number of sociocultural markers, but we have been taught few methods for deconstructing, analyzing and making sense of how the contours of these phenomena are manifesting. Because of this, we have to spend the time and mental energy on top of the tasks associated with getting through life and work trying to understand and unpack our experiences. It’s not so much, “Was that racist/sexist/misogynoirist/classist?,” but more, “in what ways was what just happened informed by my race, gender presentation/perceived gender and/or class?”
It’s why Tiana Clark’s “This is What Black Burnout Feels Like” struck such a deep chord within me. The piece, written in conversation with Anne Helen Peterson’s “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” details how Black millennials shouldering the weight of work and personal stress – which is crushing for white millennials – are also living in a state of trauma caused by racialized violence and wading through more debt and barriers to mobility than our white peers.
But it doesn’t stop us from brunching or going to work or shopping for clothing that allows one to be a boss ass bitch in the streets and a self-possessed THOT in the sheets. In the face of violence and uncertainty, Black women create, gather and re-make our world in order to make it more hospitable, livable; perhaps even enjoyable to us and the people who look like us.
So this Black History Month, we raise a glass to Black women (or womyn, womxn, etc,) through a campaign we’re calling SHEsBlack&SHEsProud. As we get into it, we’ll explore a number of topics including: controlling images, misogynoir, negotiating as a Black woman and the ways race and gender compound in our experiences of the workplace. In doing so, we hope to shine a light and also provide tools for the future. I hope you’ll join us for the ride!
I’ll leave you with a quote from the book jacket of poet Morgan Parker’s second book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé: “The only thing more beautiful than Beyoncé is God, and God is a black woman sipping rosé and drawing a lavender bath, texting her mom, belly-laughing in the therapist’s office, feeling unloved, being on display, daring to survive.”
Brynn Plummer, curator of SHEsBlack&SHEsProud