Elevating Black Voices Needs to Happen Beyond Black History Month

Writer Huda Hassan asks why Black women’s voices are seldom celebrated outside the shortest month of the year

A photo of writer Huda Hassan wearing a black coat and a black and red scarf, her hand is over her mouth and she is mid laugh, looking away from the camera

Today marks the end of Black History Month, an annual occurrence that prompts attempts to explore the stories, histories and lives of Black people through efforts that are often short-lived—and often insincere. Black History Month (BHM) is a time for institutions, such as schools, governments and media outlets, to force an interest in the lives of Black people, despite ignoring our existence the rest of the year. For many Black people, it is a month where we tolerate performative BHM content: for 28 days, everyone pretends that they are genuinely interested in Black life, and Black people pretend that a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote—or his entire legacy—wasn’t just used completely out of context, like in that recent Ram Trucks Super Bowl commercial.

This time of year can be particularly challenging for Black cultural producers in Canada, especially Black women who are writers, poets, artists, educators, activists and the like. Sometimes our overall portfolio might not even focus on Blackness or our identities, but because we are cultural producers who are also Black, we are instantly assumed to be experts on Blackness. It’s this time of year when we, who are often underemployed, underpaid and undervalued, can say “yes” to work. It’s in February that my inbox becomes flooded with speaking opportunities—offers that often arrive with no talk of compensation—for content I can provide any other time of the year. Those who are recognized, highlighted or hired to provide insight into Black histories and lives are given this short window to be celebrated and compensated for important stories that are often overlooked for the remaining 11 months of the year.

We have so much to offer

We need to increase the voices of Black women in every corner of the media industry—and be conscious and careful about how these roles are defined. In addition to providing more opportunities, elevating Black voices also means learning to stop limiting Black writers and content producers to only talking about their identities—and only when media outlets feel it is relevant. We are so much more than that, and we have so much more to offer.

Writers of colour who examine their identities and power through their work do so because it is what we are reduced to by editors and publishers. The Black Women Writers Network of Canada, a group of Black women writers across the country that offers support and resources to one another, exists for this very reason. We voluntarily have to do the labour of cultivating lists of Black women writers, and themes of interest with regard our writing, to help publishers and editors locate us for topics beyond our race, and in months beyond February.

Why creating space is more important than ever

Institutions that performatively highlight Black history in February must also work to actively understand why it’s important to find ways to celebrate Blackness all year round. In journalism this means beginning to offer more permanent jobs rather than freelance and contributor roles to Black women content creators. And taking active steps to hire Black content creators is more important now than ever before because of threats to net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a set of U.S. protections that were put into place in 2015 in order to prevent internet service providers from playing favourites with specific websites. Late last year, however, the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. decided to partially repeal strict net neutrality rules (put into place during the Obama administration)—meaning they partially got rid of regulations that currently prevent internet providers from blocking, prioritizing or throttling (intentionally slowing or speeding up) online content they do or don’t like. This process has the ability to further diminish the voices of people of colour now that internet service providers have been granted the ability to be more selective with the services they provide—and the voices that internet users can access. And that represents a threat to underrepresented communities, such as Black women. With the end of net neutrality, it is imperative for major publications to actively hire Black writers, editors, fact-checkers, photographers, photo editors, illustrators, social media editors and more.

The power of Black women

Black women have unfortunately always existed in the margins of women’s rights movements and Black liberation struggles, in spite of being the unrecognized spearheads of these efforts. Despite having crucial insight and perspective, we are continuously rendered invisible. Black women writers, such as Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry and June Jordan, contributed some of the most politically reflective poetry, plays, theory, song and literature captures the realities of their times. Even Octavia Butler, a Black feminist science fiction writer, tried to warn us about leaders like Donald Trump in her 1993 dystopian novel, Parable of the Sower, where she imagines a society that has collapsed as a result of growing inequality, climate change and the uprising of a fascist leader. Black women writers have proved that we are worth listening to. We have too much to offer.

I’ve always considered Black History Month to be nothing but a distraction: an attempt by institutions to tell us that Black lives, histories and futures matter, while neglecting to say so at any other given point of the year. It’s important for us to question why Black women’s voices are seldom celebrated or of great interest outside the shortest month of the year. Without Black writers, an entire perspective and wealth of stories are lost. Our words matter, and we shouldn’t have to spend every February reminding the world of that.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2018.


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