by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps
The origins of Black History Month date back to 1926, when, in order to recognize and honor the role that Black people have played in American history, Carter G. Woodson, and some of his fellow Black historians and influential African Americans, launched Negro History Week with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Over the next fifty years, the concept of combating the erasure of Black lives from United States history began to spread around college campuses, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford formally declared that February would be Black History Month.
In the forty years since, the idea of Black History Month has resonated differently with different Americans. There are those who decry the division of a segment of our population, and those who take on the burden of explaining it. There are those who fear that holding a celebration of Black history over only one month is giving permission to compartmentalize the issue, and those who believe an annual spotlight is necessary, however brief. There are those who use the month to limit the education to slavery or best-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
While the narratives of the Black experience and the Jewish experience shouldn’t be conflated, as Jews, we are no strangers to these conversations, and to the fight to have our stories contextualized, our complexities celebrated, and the voices of the lesser-known among us be heard.
This week we read from the Torah portion Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) to recount the final three plagues and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The tale of our fight for freedom from slavery is one told over and over again, yet we do not forget that it falls in the middle of the Torah; our history began long before our time in Egypt, and has continued long after.
Black history didn’t begin with slavery; while being ripped from their homes in shackles may have been the moment for many in which their stories overtly joined the history of America, Black history dates back much further. Black history didn’t end with slavery either, just as the Jewish story didn’t end with the Exodus; both communities put a major event behind them to have their shackles not disappear, but merely transition. From a life in chains to the Jim Crow south, and from building pyramids to the Spanish Inquisition; from segregation to mass incarceration, and from the Holocaust to Neo Nazis.
And just as important is the celebration and centrality of a community’s contributions to the world as a whole, the leaders that have secured prominence in history, and those who too often have gone or continue to go under-noticed. These stories are not only ones of discrimination and oppression, but of power, of pride, and of contributing to our global society.
We do not presume to know intimately the suffering of another; we do not attempt to use our own experiences to overshadow, or project onto, anyone else. But as Jews, we are obligated to draw from our own stories the lessons of nuance, of context, of fighting to be seen, and to celebrate Black History Month by embracing new ways of being an ally, by advocating the necessity of honoring Black history, by educating about more than just slavery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by joining together to help amplify Black voices, and by taking some time to bring new perspectives into our lives.
Not only this Shabbat, or this month, but for always, we should strive to improve upon our role as allies, as listeners, as learners, and as advocates who lift up and celebrate Black voices in our nation.