Why Black History Month feels a little different in 2021
USA Today’s Enterprise Editor for Racism and History, Nichelle Smith discusses the need to move forward with a new sensibility.
staff video, USA TODAY
It’s an understatement to say that 2020 got on Black folks’ collective last nerve.
We began the year with a COVID-19 pandemic that hit us harder than any other group of Americans and exposed the systemic inequities still at the root of the nation’s institutions despite the gains of the civil rights movement.
Black people were among essential workers risking their lives to serve others, but also among the first to lose their jobs after stay-at-home orders shuttered businesses in every state. Many of us lost friends and relatives and were unable, due to social distancing, to mourn them properly.
Police-involved killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sent us into the streets with our masks on to protest a law enforcement system that doesn’t protect us. To salt the wounds, racist rhetoric supported in the nation’s highest places pitted white Americans against Black Americans at a time when we all needed so badly to work together.
Then 2021 arrived with an attack on the U.S. Capitol six days in by “patriots” bent on murder and destruction largely because the November election – of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person and first woman to hold that office – didn’t go their way.
But as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn notes in an exclusive essay for USA TODAY, this historical moment of chaos and confusion is not unfamiliar terrain. Last year was not without some victories, and 2021 is not without hope.
In 1967, the beloved community Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to build, seemingly buoyed by civil rights legislation, seemed further away than ever. Police brutality in Watts in Los Angeles exploded into rebellion just after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and white backlash to integration seemed to threaten democracy itself. Young Black activists were at odds with their elders over who should lead the movement.
So King put the question to the people in the title of his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?” This is the same question before us more than 50 years later.
Black people I’ve talked to on nearly a year’s worth of Zoom calls have all said the same thing: Black folks have had hard times before, we know how to get through them. With faith, we will come forth stronger and better, but we all have to do it together.
We need to first examine how we got here. How do we dismantle ideas and systems that keep racism alive? We also need to hold our leaders as accountable for progress as we do ourselves.
There is the promise of vaccines for COVID-19. There is excitement in the election of Biden and Harris. Presidents of historically Black colleges and universities are hoping for Biden’s support. Black women like Donna Brazile, political strategist for several Democratic presidents, and Black girls like Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter can’t wait for the inspiration Harris will bring.
As King said in 1967 and Clyburn says today, we are at a crossroads. But as much as we want things to right themselves, we can’t rush the process. We can’t heal as a people, as a country, until we’ve taken time to examine everything that has so clearly gone wrong and allowed all voices to be heard.
Where do we go from here? The short answer: Forward. Through still-difficult times to the other, better side. There’s no going back to a “normal” that never worked that well for Black people anyway.
The only way forward is through.
For more stories on how we move forward together, see this year’s Black History Month special edition, on newsstands and in USA TODAY’s online store.
12:54 pm UTC Feb. 1, 2021
12:54 pm UTC Feb. 1, 2021