V’nahafoch hu: African/Black History Beyond February
Updated: Feb 22
As February, “Black History Month,” ends and the month of Adar, when we celebrate Purim, begins, we’re presented with an instructive overlapping of themes, calling on us to deepen our anti-racist practice and strengthen our ability to dismantle racism systemically.
Black History Month started as Black History Week in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson and his comrades, founders of what today is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Given the racist erasure of African American success and development, it was meant to be a time to learn, uplift, and honor the histories, achievements, and societal contributions of Africans and African Amercians, and over the decades evolved from just a week to a month. Dr. Woodson understood he and other African descendants would be “inspired to greater achievements” through connecting to their roots, and also recognized that African history needs to be continuously taught, uplifted and wholly integrated into our education and learning year-round.
He recognized this learning needs to be a consistent practice for it to make a meaningful difference in our lives.
Today, due to white supremacy, the learning and uplifting of African and African American history and life is often sequestered to February in formal settings; largely ignored societally as a whole; and in some extreme cases possibly becoming illegal in public education as seen in Florida.
As communities committed to racial justice, we need to flip racist hierarchies of power, value and care. Together, we must make it a consistent practice to move from prioritizing those privileged in racism to those targeted by anti-Black racism, coming into a balance of care.
Drawing from the central theme of Purim, v’nahafoch hu (it was turned upside down), this period provides us with the opportunity to “turn upside down” and subvert racist hierarchies of power within ourselves and others by prioritizing the learning of Black history and life beyond the month of February. I invite and challenge you to join me in making the learning of African history and life a consistent practice for the next 40 days, deepening your anti-racist habits of mind, body, and spirit to more effectively dismantle racism systemically. If you are of African descent, I encourage you to research and interrogate your own story, and if you’re compelled, take up space and share your findings in whatever way you’d like.
Commit to this small, daily anti-racist practice alongside community members today! Spend at least 5 minutes a day for the next 40 days in this practice.
Through this daily practice, we’ll be employing Jewish spiritual wisdom and Mussar practice through the soul trait of anavah/humility, and its emphasis on taking the right amount of space. To challenge racist hierarchies of power and value we need to let the histories, ideas, stories, learnings, writings, productions, and art of those targeted by anti-Black racism take up more space in our lives than other content – at least for some time for it to come into balance with other areas of content we’ve already consumed in our lives. This will/may require investing less time in current content areas that take up lots of space in your life. But do know you’re not in this alone! Each week, we’ll send you a brief update, explaining our foundational Balance of Care framework, demonstrating Mussar practices, and providing prompts for you to reflect on your anti-racist practice journey.
Whether you join us in this 40-day anti-racist practice challenge or not, please take the next 10 minutes to let the art and history of our very own Jessica Valoris take up space, exploring her brilliant exhibit Passage/Way/s that explores “liberatory legacies of enslaved Black people and the various ways they imagined liberation through escape, refusal, collective care, and resistance.”
Please read below for reflections from Jessica Valoris on her work Passage/Way/s.
For the past two and a half years I have been immersing myself in a practice of study, art-making, and spiritual ritual to honor the lives of enslaved ancestors. This exploration started in late 2019 after I came across a database of fugitive slave ads (commonly referred to as runaway ads). These documents both held the horrors of our past, and also the promise of those enslaved ancestors who were able to get away, even but for a moment in time. It was an archive of the ways that Black ancestors resisted and actualized liberation for themselves and their families.
I was fueled to continue this study during the summer of 2020. It was a time when people were taking to the streets to march for Black lives, being met with violence both from police and white nationalist groups. Politicians, celebrities, and sports franchises performed racial justice with kente cloth, Negro National anthems, and advertising campaigns, further tokenizing Black freedom struggles. I felt particularly resentful around the ways that Juneteenth was being lifted as a federal holiday, without a call for the United States to be held accountable for the terrors of slavery, and the structural racial inequities we are still struggling with. And now, we are still fighting for basic representation of these histories in our classrooms and libraries. Still waiting on proposed bill HR40, just to begin a conversation about reparations and accountability.
I’m positive that our ancestors also experienced similar moments of despair, of questioning if things could ever change for the better, and for good. I began my artistic journey with the question, “how did our Black ancestors free themselves?” Ultimately it was the courage a small minority of enslaved people who decided to escape, and then to organize to help others escape, and then to enlist white abolitionist allies, and then to push for armed resistance and Civil War, and eventually to turn the tides of the Civil War, that eventually made emancipation possible. General Granger, the White hero often lifted up in the story of Juneteenth, was only possible because of the thousands of determined Black folks who risked it all to make a different world possible. I wanted to know how they did it… the everyday practices of care and resistance that carried them through. Somehow, I thought there might be some lessons for us now, as we navigate towards a future that, at times, feels impossible.
This exploration has deeply shaped my art and has begot a collection of paintings, poems, zines, drawings, sculptures, and community-engaged ritual performances. The creative works are now a part of an installation called Passage/way/s, currently exhibited at VisArts in Rockville, MD until March 5th. If you are in the area, consider visiting us and joining us for one of our public programs. And if you are not in the area, consider joining us for the virtual walkthrough and artist talk on Tuesday, February 28th.
May we continue to learn from our histories, from the painful parts and the promising moments. May we commit to be in study and practice year round!