As a young African American native West Virginian from Institute (the city), Black Excellence was something I knew because I was living in it. I grew up beside West Virginia State University and was privileged enough to travel the country to other more culturally diverse areas. I noticed, even at a young age, there was something VERY different about how culture was celebrated in other places.
Black History Month was the only time in school we acknowledged African American contributions. Typically, the lesson was very watered down and it almost exclusively revolved around slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. There were ALWAYS coloring sheets or informationals the teachers proudly passed out that covered one of the following options: MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and a wild card choice if there was some extra initiative. As I look back, I realize those teachers were doing the best they knew how and I was thankful but I also knew that African Americans contributed much more to American history and this could be taught with more than JUST some coloring activities.
As a Millennial adult and parent, I find myself increasingly concerned about the lack of multicultural education and awareness in our State. West Virginia is 93% white. If we aren’t teaching about other cultures and we aren’t exposing ourselves to different races/ethnicities, then how can we accurately develop an understanding and empathy for those who are different?
President Barack Obama plainly stated, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” This year, I decided to lead the change I wanted to see. I contacted someone in upper management of every nonprofit organization I’ve supported recently and asked what they were doing to elevate Black History Month. To encourage action, I even included actionable resources and offered to personally assist with any questions or concerns. It’s important for me to do my part as well as ask that the schools, individuals, organizations and businesses I support do the same. I was elated when Generation West Virginia Executive Director, Natalie Roper, reached out to me and asked that I share some of the ways I’ve emboldened others to celebrate Black History month:
Research and educate yourself! As an adult, make your own effort to learn something new about the black community and their experiences. I know it may be really enticing to ask your friends of color everything there is to know about their respective culture but it’s also A LOT. Taking initiative to check out the World Wide Web (is that super 1995?) and search for a myriad of information, for free, is a great way to learn and grow your understanding of African American culture.
I mean, if you could watch the “Fyre festival”, learn about “which fork to use at a formal dinner” and research “how to tie a Windsor knot” for 3 hours, I think you can spare some time to become more culturally aware – no judgment, just facts. Streaming services have become our generation’s go-to for diverse information access! YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime your way into untold stories of African Americans. I’d start with documentaries such as13th, and movies like Selma, Hidden Figures and more!
The rich history of African-American contributions in our state exist in our local museums which are open to the public. Also, visit our HBCUs (Historically Black College Universities), Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University, to immerse yourself in Black Academia. Consider how many stories, events and people have been left out of the story of our Nation, empower yourself to think about the omissions and how that affects our perceptions. Take the initiative to intentionally educate yourself. There’s so much to learn!
I used a concept a few months ago which was called “Mirrors and Windows.” A mirror shows your own person. The mirror is an important representation of who you are and is necessary for self-awareness. A window is something you look through but this particular reference speaks to looking into other cultures as someone who is standing outside.
Imagine living in a society where things rarely “mirrored” you – being an outsider in your own town. There is no consistent or clear representation of anyone that looks like you. You become, the “only,” the “representative” of your collective, the “token” the in room.
With this illustration, understand how important the need for representation is. It’s crucial to have a voice or feel supported in a community of people. It is just as important to look through your “window” to gain a better understanding of how other groups socially and culturally might navigate the world differently than yourself. Awareness of others begets wisdom and change. Empower.
Our younger generations are more inclined to support diversity and inclusion initiatives. We Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Z’s are socially conscientious buyers. We follow and support influencers, brands and companies who align with our beliefs and values.
Our age group makes a big effort to shop small and support local businesses but what if we kept that same energy and were just as mindful with shopping and supporting Black Owned businesses?
What better way to financially empower the community than to support Black businesses? We have an array of Black Owned businesses within our own wild and wonderful state such as Food-Network featured Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill, The Cary Law Office, Braids & Twists,Tray’s Barbershop,Capital Insurance Group, The Boutique By B. Belle, Island Auto Spa, CC Bella Hair, The Fab House just to name a few!
Let’s celebrate Black History Month well beyond February and all year round and #SupportBlackBusiness and shop #BlackOwned.
Social media is the peanut butter to our generation’s jelly, or the avocado to our toast. With that being said, how many African American people, artists or Black Owned businesses do you follow?
We collectively have to be intentional about diversifying our news feed, friend groups and shared spaces. There are lots of black bloggers like Shani Hillian, It’s Candy Love (shameless plug) and LoveBrownSugar; Black YouTubers Patricia Bright, Kat Blaque and Marques Brownlee; Black Podcasters such as Chris Browning, 2 Dope Queens, Snap Judgment and many more!
Use your “window” to observe and your platform to share your findings with others. Want to know how else you can celebrate Black culture? Make sure to visit African American museums, attend local African American events/festivities, support local racial equity organizations and volunteer in communities of color!!
Have meaningful conversations with your circle of influence around African-American culture, contributions and opportunities. I know holidays can difficult. Dad burned the turkey, Mom wants to know when you’ll get a “real job”, your uncle didn’t bring a dish but made sure to bring his strong opinions. But this is the PERFECT time to have those hard conversations with your family about race and equity.
It’s not about trying to politicize, convince or demonize differences of opinions. It’s about challenging beliefs that may perpetuate problematic and biased behavior. Use social time to discuss and challenge those around your community!
Challenge your own implicit and explicit biases. Ask yourself open-ended questions about bias, stereotypes and microaggressions. We all have preconceived notions of individuals, groups and cultures so we must do the intentional work of examining and challenging ourselves regularly. Let’s think of this exercise as your community service project, like a contribution to your society.
February is a time to explore Black history, examine our own biases, empower African Americans through support, celebrate through diversifying our views and encourage our circles to use windows to view into other cultures. We as a society are able to move forward together when we know where we came from, what contributions Black culture has made, what current issues we face and how we can effect change going forward. Black History is an integral part of the past, the present and OUR future. Lean in and be the change you wish to see.
Stacy Oden is a social/digital media consultant, blogger, organizer and an advocate. When she’s not about town, she’s exploring the universe through the eyes of her two daughters. She loves ridiculous theme parties, food, traveling, and Beyonce. Stacy was born in Institute, and lives and works in WV.
You can follow her on instagram @itscandylove
Like party favors, but for your brain. Enjoy these web goodies including viral videos, interesting articles, curated playlists, and more!
- WATCH: “When you watch “13TH,” you feel that you’re seeing an essential dimension of America with new vision. That’s what a cathartically clear-eyed work of documentary art can do. ” – Variety. It’s available on Netflix right now!
- WATCH: Selma is a 2014 historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay. It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis. You can stream Selma on HULU.
- WATCH: Hidden Figures is the incredible untold true story of WV native Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan & Mary Jackson —brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. This stunning achievement galvanized the world and inspired generations to dream big. Rent Hidden Figures on ITunes here.