“I am not surprised because we’ve learned to disassociate men’s private relationships with their partners from their intellectual accomplishments. Sometimes we expect these things.”
–Maryse Condé, speaking of Frantz Fanon’s known partnership abuse
“The west has been gazing at us for so long, we forgot to look back.”
Black History Month is a time of commemoration. Simply, it is a time of centering Black histories in a world where whiteness is always at the center. It is also a time of centering the contributions, ideas, and leadership of Black thinkers and organizers. Importantly, Black History Month is a time of honouring those whose “shoulders we stand upon” – a time to honour the struggles of Black men and women and children, no longer with the living, who have made difficult choices so that ours could be radically different. Throughout the month, we honor the men and women and children in history who have been the backbones of our families and communities. For the many among us who have a fleeting relationship with this shortest month of the year, Black History Month is still a time to attend to Black life more closely, to inhale the public images of us everywhere with pride, and to forge new communities of learning during the panels and events that commemorate the month.
In 1989, the historian Darlene Clark Hines wrote a groundbreaking article about the labor and inner lives of Black women in the early 20th century. In the article, she writes about the migration of Black women out of the South—a migration propelled by the mundane experience of sexual violence within their families and communities, as well as by white men. Poignantly, she also writes about the choices Black women made in caring for their families as personal servants and domestics in white homes at a time when little more employment opportunity was afforded. Coinciding with the height of lynching in the US, a public spectacle, Black women undertook domestic labour with a commitment to conceal the private violence of rape by white men in the homes they cleaned. Hine referred to this as a “culture of dissemblance”—a cult of secrecy Black women used to provide “the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining an enigma.” Only with secrecy, could Black women gather the “psychic space and harness the resources needed to hold their own in the often one-sided and mismatched resistance struggle” at work and often, at home. As one can easily imagine, in the early 20th century, the thought of exposing one’s sexual violence could mean greater violence at home and in the workplace; most obviously, it would mean a termination of employment and loss of income that deeply impacted an entire family.
The commemoration of Black women’s lives is an essential, integral part of the commemoration that takes place during Black History Month. We are now in a very public moment of reckoning regarding gender violence against Black women and the ways Black communities have long denied the existence and weight of such violence in the lives of our mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties and grandmothers. When Tarana Burke created the #MeToo hashtag, her intention was to name the realities of gender violence and rape faced by Black women. As her hashtag has moved well beyond Black communities in its reach, our moment of reckoning has come home to us in the form of men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly–long known predators who lived openly amongst us, repeatedly harmed, and for decades, were staunchly protected in their abuse of girls and women.
It would simply be unthinkable to commemorate Black History Month without commemorating the work of Black women organizers like Tarana Burke. We must remember that her work, as she herself often acknowledges, stands on the shoulders of generations of Black women, such as Ida B. Wells, who came before her. To celebrate Black feminist organizers like Tarana Burke and her foremothers as part of our commemorations during Black history month, necessarily means that we must consider who and how we honor at all.
What does it mean to commemorate Black History Month without a central consideration for Black women’s organizing around gender violence in our communities? And what kind of profound, grotesque hypocrisy exists among us when we plan commemorative events, knowingly including speakers and other organizers who have histories of gender violence, unaccounted for, within our own communities?
During Black History Month, we must reckon with those among us, in our schools and our institutions, in our private spaces and public spaces, that generate ongoing harm against Black women — the very same kinds of harm that Black women, our ancestors, have organized against for over a century. We raise these issues now, at the onset, as we undergo a full month of commemoration; a full month of honouring and naming our ancestors; and a full month of preparing the generations that will lead in the future. It is shameful to all of us; it is shameful to our ancestors; and it is shameful to our children and grandchildren to ignore accountability mechanisms for those among us who have assaulted and raped our sisters.
Bluntly, it is both destructive and immoral to include organizers and keynotes and speakers in Black History Month events knowing they have done harm, unchecked, to Black women in our communities. These are the same kinds of communities that grew Bill Cosby. These are the same kinds of communities that made R. Kelly. And these are the communities that continue to allow our mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties and grandmothers to suffer in the sexual violence and rapes they have lived through and in turn, locked away deeply inside.