Personalizing Black History Month

How its observance taught me about vulnerability

For Asantewa, Black History Month should make room for personal stories, hopes, and dreams.

Mental illness doesn’t stop for any occasion. 

I’ve spent birthdays and family vacations playing tug of war with depression, anxiety, and ADHD. I’ve found myself immobilized by fear minutes before leaving my house because the mere idea of being in a room full of people was overwhelming. Try as I may, events have always been a problem for me.

As you can imagine, this makes Black History Month (BHM) a difficult time. BHM isn’t just a singular event. It’s an ongoing month of observance with community—in this case, the African diaspora and all its allies—as a central theme. 

I didn’t critically evaluate my thoughts on BHM until I came to Queen’s, more the result of circumstance rather than any mediated effort on my part to ignore it.

Canada officially recognized BHM in 1995, six years before I arrived in this country from Ghana. I grew up in Albertan suburbs and attended predominately white schools. As a Ghanaian immigrant, I quickly learned I come from a country grossly misrepresented by the media. My West African background has been the focal point of many uncomfortable conversations and ignorant statements.

Based on my experiences, it makes sense to not be thrilled at the prospect of putting myself out there, especially taking my anxiety into account. There’s a sense of vigilance that often comes with anxiety, further compounded by the fact that I navigate the world as a visibly black African woman. 

I live with the knowledge there are people out there who think my identity makes me an acceptable target for dehumanization, so my hypervigilance tends to peak during busy occasions, like BHM. The pressure to perform has never been higher, which then leaves the question: who am I performing for, and to what end?

I live with the knowledge there are people out there who think my identity makes me an acceptable target for dehumanization, so my hypervigilance tends to peak during busy occasions, like BHM.

With my mental health struggles comes a sense of exhaustion that rarely leaves. The constant feeling of needing to meet expectations only to fall short doesn’t leave either. And though I have every intention of contributing meaningfully to BHM, and of making the most of what I’m given, that doesn’t always work out. In the words of drag queen Gia Gunn, “What you wanna do is not necessarily what you’re gonna do.”

It’s hard to contribute when you don’t feel like a whole person. Splitting my attention between my racial identity, cultural background, mental health, and personal standards of acceptable behaviour is beyond mentally and physically taxing; it leaves me feeling fragmented and vulnerable.

It seems odd that a month of cultural celebration within the African diaspora would prove so challenging for me. But then again, worrying excessively is something I unfortunately have a knack for. 

On one hand, seeing the events that groups on Queen’s campus like Queen’s Black Academic Society and African & Caribbean Students’ Association put together every February does excite me. Specifically, I love the opportunities for education and discussion afforded by BHM because it makes socializing and networking with others a little more accessible to me.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if all my overthinking inadvertently contributes to feelings of isolation. The extent to which my struggles are self-inflicted is a question I grapple with every month. 

Within the context of BHM, I wonder if my many fears about how I will be perceived only serve to ostracize myself from a community I need in a non-racially diverse city like Kingston. However, I also think about the ways I could be putting myself at risk when I don’t admit to my personal limitations.

At the heart of my dilemma is this need to fit myself into the overarching institutional structure of BHM. Exploring this issue is tricky—I don’t want to internalize unhealthy feelings of isolation and otherness. 

That said, I’d do a disservice to myself if I failed to acknowledge all that I am, good or bad. The relationship we, as members of the African diaspora, have with ourselves is intrinsically linked to the power of public narratives, including those we choose to explore using BHM as a medium. 

If Blackness is tied to strength and an ability to withstand generational trauma, am I less worthy because of my ongoing battles with mental illness and self-image? If blackness is defined in terms of proximity to African cultures, what do we say to our brothers and sisters who cannot fully map out their roots? 

In the end, Blackness and Black History Month must make room for the personal: personal stories, personal hopes, and personal dreams.

When I look to BHM, I think of what’s contained in my own body. The African diaspora contains many histories. My family has a history; I have a history too. When we approach culture and history in a personal, empathetic way, it makes room for all intersections of oppression and identity.

When we approach culture and history in a personal, empathetic way, it makes room for all intersections of oppression and identity.

In doing so, we can ultimately foster a more inclusive environment, teaching us as a community that we belong anywhere and everywhere.

The theme Kingston has chosen for BHM 2019 is “Black Excellence.” For me, the celebration of Black excellence necessitates the acknowledgement of Black vulnerability. 

Viola Desmond is a woman who’s fondly remembered as the “Canadian Rosa Parks,” but many forget that she didn’t walk into a movie theatre expecting to be harassed, physically assaulted, or jailed by the Nova Scotian government. 

We remember Harriet Tubman as a tough-as-nails abolitionist, but what I find especially astonishing is she accomplished all that while experiencing severe headaches and seizures for most of her life. She was never properly diagnosed, but the general historical consensus is that she had a form of epilepsy.

Within stories of excellence, you can often find struggle, pain, and a constant facing of the unknown. Through these qualities, the ways we’ve triumphed become clearer. I search for that vulnerability, and I make sure that it’s known, shared, and remembered—that’s how I personalize Black History Month. Not only does this assure me others have struggled the way I do, it tells me maybe I’m not doing so bad after all. 

In her book The Ways of Tenderness, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes: “What happens to a hurt people? We forget that we are butterflies bearing up in the wild winds. We forget that we are tender from the suffering.” 

I think to be Black will always mean working through complex feelings about identity, mental health, and wellness. Sometimes I need to step back and remember that while I belong to a community—multiple communities, in fact—I also belong to myself. Black History Month is just another chance for me to celebrate all that I am and all that I come from.

It’s both tempting and easy to get lost in the folds of your identity, or to view it only as something to be detangled, processed and unpacked. But in my view, we are also cocooned, or protected, by who we are. In this way, too, we are butterflies.

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