POINT OF VIEW
Black in NH
by Emerald Anderson-Ford
Black Granite Staters are made up of a unique tapestry of diversity, each having various ways of engaging with American Black History and Black History Month. Often, there is an unspoken understanding that the month of February should invoke strong feelings of pride, determination, and motivation for everyone, but most notably those who identify as Black or African American. And while that is certainly true for a lot of people, there is a more complex understanding of how the celebration of Black History Month can feel, when Black folk are a small minority population of an area. Those complexities can usher in mixed feelings about Black identity and its perception of the diaspora at large.
“…because of my multiple identities and experiences, Black History Month seems to be a time when the United States is trying to reckon with its treatment of Black people in this country,” says James McKim of the Manchester NAACP. McKim, while not native-born in New Hampshire, is a long-time resident and community leader. “My experience is that having Black History month in February is a good thing, but I believe it should be taught all year round. Having come from the South, it doesn’t impact me in the same ways. In the South, it’s just part of what you do. It’s nothing earth-shattering.”
In my previous Black in NH column I presented the idea that “If there are 21,000 Black people in the Granite State, one has to assume there are 21,000 ways to be Black.” McKim’s understanding of engagement with Black History Month continues to illustrate this point and the complexities of being Black in New Hampshire.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared the second week in February as Negro History Week to elevate the accomplishments of African Americans in the country and world. Before this time, there was limited education or acknowledgment of advancements and contributions of Black folk in the nation. The timing of the week was chosen because it included the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln; both men were seen as champions of the plight of Black folk at the time. By 1976, President Gerald Ford extended the week to a month-long celebration to “honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
So what does the celebration of Black Americans’ contribution and advancement look like, in a state that is majority white and that houses a large number of African refugees and immigrants?
“It looks like a lack of representation, until the last decade, and even still – not great,” says Eman Baniaz, the twenty-something child of Egyptian immigrants and a Manchester resident. “I think as a child I did not feel as though I could ‘celebrate’ Black History Month because of the history I wasn’t taught. I couldn’t say I knew my lineage to trace back hundreds of years, I barely knew why I had come to the states to begin with. I grew up feeling something I still am unsure of. I knew I was a Black person but didn’t entirely understand what that meant when I was surrounded by whiteness and when, culturally, my life didn’t mirror that of an American life.”
Baniaz’s experiences highlight the difficulty of finding a singular understanding of Black History and how to acknowledge and celebrate it, even within the Black community. “I know it’s important, but I’m not always sure how it’s important to me. I walk a very thin line, as I imagine many children of Black immigrants walk, unsure which identity is acceptable.”
What is true in both McKim and Baniaz’s experience is that education on the vast and rich history of the diaspora is key. “An ideal Black History Month focuses on education,” McKim adds. “Workshops, seminars, series’ that educate people about the true history of this country and of New Hampshire – like what the Black Heritage Trail is doing. Educational programming that everyone attends and takes part in, living out the values of who we say we are.”
As New Hampshire continues to wrestle with how to create authentic spaces of inclusion for its Black residents, having intentionality in how we engage with Black history is necessary for our ever-growing and changing demographics. Education is the key to the door of belonging that has historically been closed and locked in the Granite State. Will you turn the knob?
Emerald Anderson-Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org