Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro History Week—the first iteration of Black History Month—in 1926 because he believed that Black people deserved to celebrate who we are. From slavery to Jim Crow, from forced sterilization to the Tulsa race massacre, Black and brown folks have had to reaffirm our right to live free without tyranny or persecution for generations. And this violence isn’t just in our past.
Four years under the Trump administration has shown us that the progress our elders bled for on bridges and sidewalks can be stripped back. As we reach the year mark of a pandemic that has ravaged the Black community more than any other, we are reminded that those who pull the levers of power don’t often do so to save Black lives. Healing is really left to us.
On holidays, my grandparents used to sit our family around the dinner table, hold hands, and pray. To put this in context, my siblings and I stopped attending church during our adolescence, so for much of my life, these prayer sessions were the closest any of us came to speaking to the big guy upstairs. My grandparents wouldn’t use this moment to pray for us, though: Their prayers were focused on the ancestors who made coming around this table possible.
It was in these moments of reflection that we felt the weight of the sacrifices they made.
It was in these moments of reflection that we felt the weight of the sacrifices they made. A lot of Afro-Latinos tend to ignore the Afro side of that description as if doing so will let us ram through the generational trauma that has been passed down like heirlooms. But my grandparents wanted us to look past our internalized colorism and biases to make sure we, the younger generations, understood where we came from. As Grandma recited names and shared stories long forgotten, we connected the stories to characters we heard my grandpa talk about with a grin or people my grandma mentioned with sadness. This was our family's routine for as far back as I can remember, from my mom and stepfather's cramped living room in Rhode Island when I was 6 to Grandma’s large kitchen in New Jersey when I was 13 to my mom's own apartments in the Bronx during our teenage years.
But pandemics throw wrenches in traditions. Just two weeks after we joined hands to pray at my cousin’s wedding reception dinner, the entire world shut down. And we were forced to adapt.
My siblings and I were committed to continuing our prayer tradition in lockdown; we knew our grandparents would want us to. So my grandmother updated her cell phone (in order to download Zoom) and we decided to gather digitally for dinner once a month. We shared stories, my grandfather would make jokes, and we would laugh. Being together in this way while people we knew got sick provided a sense of normalcy in spite of the trauma around us.
At the time, we didn’t realize how fleeting this sense of security would be. We got through two Zoom dinners—and had just started planning a Mother’s Day Zoom—when our entire world was flipped. My grandfather was diagnosed with COVID-19. Five days after the diagnosis, my grandpa passed and suddenly the thing we used to lionize how we had gotten here needed to be retrofitted to honor a present loss. As much as we enjoyed the tradition, it was excruciatingly painful to have my grandfather become one of the characters we shared stories about.
Five days after the diagnosis, my grandpa passed and suddenly the thing we used to lionize how we had gotten here needed to be retrofitted to honor a present loss.
As we had for generations, my family was left to process our grief ourselves because those responsible for it had been negligent in caring for the larger Black and Afro-Latino community. We were tasked with finding justice in our healing like we were when Malcolm X or Fred Hampton were murdered—or Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and George Floyd. Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and now the pandemic: This is our legacy of trauma. White America used black squares and empowering hashtags to praise our ability to wake up the day after and the next as stolen Black and brown lives filled morgues. We just wanted space to not be okay.
We have lost so many lives since that first Negro History Week that Carter G. Woodson created, but through prayer and reflection, we remain connected to our ancestors. I think back to the first time my family used prayer to build community and smile at the resilience it must’ve taken to hold hands and come together in honor of those who weren’t around that table. This Black History Month, we make room at our table for our newest ancestors—the far too many who were taken far too soon— and pray for healing once more.
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