Reflections by UW-Madison Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings
I am sometimes asked, “Why do we have Black History Month?” Well, yesterday (Feb. 26) marked the 3rd anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, next month will mark the 3rd anniversary of the murder of Rekia Boyd. Later this year we will mark the 3rd anniversary of the murder of Jordan Davis and next summer will mark tragic anniversaries of the murder of Mike Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The list of tragedies is much to long to recount but as we reflect on them I wonder what might have transpired if those who exacted this brutality really understood our history.
Would they see what media and others have characterized as “thugs,” “delinquents,” or “criminals?” Or might they have seen, Benjamin Banneker, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth? Might they have caught a glimpse of Booker T. or W.E.B.? Could they have possibly seen Ida B. Wells or Charles Drew? Is it conceivable that the life that was snuffed out was filled with the potential and possibility of Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, or Shirley Chisholm.
Before someone senselessly pulled a trigger or executed an illegal choke hold did it occur to them that within that Black life lay the promise of Malcolm or dare I say, Martin? Could that rash act fueled by fear have shut off the possibilities of a Harold Washington or a John Lewis?
And, if the life that was eliminated took place right here in this place would we be losing our next Vel Phillips? Would there have been no Carson Gulley Commons on this campus? Would there be no James C. Wright to champion civil rights and non-discrimination in this city. Would the Norton Anthology of African American Literature lay in disparate and tattered pieces on someone’s floor because there was no Nellie McKay?
Every single Black life does indeed matter and the wanton killing of our people by anyone—Black or White—subtracts another degree of hope and possibility. And, our candles burn bright not merely for those who we have lost but also for those who have accepted the challenge, who have taken the baton, and who move us further into a brighter future.
So we cherish a campus that is a home place to a DeShawn McKinney, a Jordan Gaines, a Brianna Blue, a Jonathan Williams, a Sarah Bruno, an Amani Breanna Alexander, an entire Black History Month Planning team, a Black Student Union, a budding Black graduate and professional organization, and a leadership that includes a Karla Foster, a Patrick Sims, an Everett Mitchell, and host of faculty and staff who stand with our students.
Why do we have Black History Month; because we NEED Black History Month! We need to remember our struggles.
We need to understand where we’ve been to more effectively plan where we are going. We cherish our past at the very same moment we embrace our future.
But Black History Month is not just for us. It is for the nation, indeed the world. Everyone needs to see our dignity and worth. Everyone needs to know that our contributions to the story of civilization are considerable, immeasurable, and irreplaceable. We need it to document our humanity and to give those who denigrate and derogate our blackness so they might have some slim chance at capturing their own humanity!