Feb 3, 2021
Ryan Spencer

What Black History Month Means To Me

What does Black History Month mean to me?


For as long as I can remember I knew that I was different. Different from my mom and her light and fair skin. Different from my dad and his dark and chocolatey skin. Different from the kids in my preschool class with long brown or blonde hair. Nothing was wrong, I was just different.


When people ask me how “white” my childhood was, I usually respond by telling them that I played basketball from the time I could put shoes on. I tell them I played in small elementary school gyms, I played in our community center after school, I played on travel teams and eventually as captain of my high school varsity team… and then I tell them that I only ever had one black teammate. One. Well sort of, he was mixed too.


To state the obvious, my childhood was overwhelmingly white. No black teammates. No black teachers. No black barber shops. No black chicken joints. No black friends.


Despite this, I excelled in high school in almost every aspect. I was popular in a way which I could navigate almost any social group at my school. I was an honor student, receiving multiple academic scholarships. I was a two sport captain my senior year. I led in our Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Chemical Awareness and Prevention chapters. And I was crowned homecoming king.


And now almost 10 years removed (wow), I often find myself reminiscing on my high school years. I still think about some of my closest friends and am grateful that our friendships are still strong. I still crave the spicy chicken sandwiches from the cafeteria. And I still regret not shooting more three pointers my senior year (you were right dad).


But more than anything, I am beginning to remember all of the small things that a black kid in a white school had to deal with on a daily basis. I am remembering the subtle racism and [un]conscious bias that I experienced persistently. I remember the stares when we talked about slavery or MLK or Rosa Parks in February. I remember the looks of amazement when I would drink grape juice at lunch. I remember hearing people proclaiming that my athletic success could be attributed to the darkness of my skin or the extra muscle in my calf (ugh). I remember the jubilation of my teammates when I got my first “black” pair of sneakers. And I remember being “special” for getting good grades.


And I remember navigating this white world by myself.


My dad is from the civil rights south. Born in Albany, Georgia in 1954, he is still described as the best big brother there ever was by his three baby sisters. I love hearing his stories of growing up playing football and baseball in the streets with his friends until the street lights turned off. He later earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia for football, and although he never went pro, the education was a ticket to a better life. My mom, from Green Bay, Wisconsin was the second youngest of 10 children. She would wake up every morning and work on the dairy farm before heading to school. A kind daughter, she loved helping her mom in their garden picking fruits and vegetables for dinner. Who would have thought that they would meet, fall in love, and have a son across the country in California?


As different as can be, my parents are perfect for each other. And I am so incredibly grateful for them both. Dropping me off at preschool, my mom heard it all. “When did you adopt him?”. “Where is his real family?”. “Wait, is he really yours?”. She responded with grace, none of it getting under her skin (or if it did she hid it). My dad, an engineer who worked his way up the corporate ladder through hard work, night classes, and kindness. Together they raised me to respect them, myself, and the world around me.



What does any of this have to do with black history month and what it means to me? Well in order to understand why this month means so much to me, you need to first understand that for a long time… it didn’t.


Growing up as I did, being black wasn’t something I thought was worth celebrating. We didn't have any typical black traditions, we didn’t watch any typical black shows, we didn’t really have black friends. There were no regular rhythms of reflecting on black history. So I just really didn’t think that the fact that I was black was all that special. It was just simply another ordinary thing about me.


Growing up the only black man I spent any significant amount of time with was my dad. And although he is unmistakably black, he also is also unlike the black men you likely see on television, in movies, or hear in music. He speaks and dresses “proper” and has a “normal” job. To put it simply, he was clearly black but he didn’t act “black”. He did not align with what most white people thought a black person was like… and neither did I.


My lack of education and understanding of what it meant to be “black” opened up the door for me to be influenced by what my white friends thought it meant for me to be black. Void of a robust knowledge of black history and culture, my blackness was reduced to how well I could play basketball or run track, what new rappers I could pretend to know, what foods I ate, and how I conformed to my friends' version of blackness.


One of the most profound things that I have realized in the past few years is that my identity as a black man will be incomplete without a deep understanding and appreciation for my black history.


When I was growing up, I allowed my understanding of who I was as a black boy/man to be almost completely rooted in what I or my friends were seeing in movies, on TV, in music videos or on ESPN. A tragic misrepresentation of the black experience that led me to a tragic understanding of who I was and who my people were!


I found that my knowledge of athletes, the most popular musicians, the leaders of the civil rights movements and Barack Obama was not enough to cultivate a solid understanding of who I was. If I wanted to grow in my black identity, it was imperative that I knew the answers to more than just the “ beginner $100 level of Black Jeopardy”. I began to think of all the poets, the inventors, the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians, the revolutionaries that shared my pigmentation who I had not learned from. I realized that I wasn’t just disappointed about my experience with learning about black history. I was ashamed. And I was discouraged.


The silencing and censoring of black history often leads black children to one of two places, shame or discouragement. We hear about slavery and jim crow laws in class and we can become ashamed of our history. It is a difficult thing to watch videos of people who look like you in chains and read stories about the simple liberties denied. Black children can struggle with the shame that comes from a one sided telling or censoring of their history. In order to combat this, we must do better in sharing the excellencies of blackness throughout history, there are so many things in their history for black kids to take pride in. We need to be intentional in showing them those things.


And we can also grow discouraged by the silencing and censoring of black history. When black history is withheld or compressed into a single week in school, there is only so much that ends up being taught. This means we often only learn about the best of the best of our ancestors. We learn about Martin Luther King Jr, Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, and George Washington Carver and can fall into the lie that we have to be that great to be remembered. It is a great thing to have heros to look up to and strive to be like, but we need to learn about the “normal” people too. We need to create spaces to celebrate the regular people and to tell the stories of the “ordinary” heroes, normalizing the amazing black stories and individuals who are often overlooked.


Black history is deeper, wider, and more attainable than we are led to believe! Black boys and girls need to learn about the heroic men and women who overcame slavery, not only by escape or emancipation, but by doing amazing things even in the midst of bondage! We need our children to learn that their chocolate skin is not only worth remembering if they become the “first” or the “best”! We must do better at sharing and celebrating black stories.


As I have learned more about the history of my people, I have found that I have a greater understanding of who I am as a black man. There is something powerful about the simple recognition that people like you have done both amazingly great and amazingly ordinary things! I have found greater peace in my identity as a black man the more I have learned about black history. I am released from the pressure of trying to be the black man people expect me to be, and am free to be the black man that God has actually created me to be knowing that the spectrum of blackness is wider, more diverse and more beautiful than I previously believed!


And learning more about the personal history of my father and his family has been one of the most wonderful gifts God has given in recent years. As I was confronted with my lack of knowledge of black history, I incorrectly put the blame on my dad for not teaching me and for raising me in a primarily white environment. I sinfully became bitter and our relationship suffered.


My dad in his grace and patience revealed the areas of his life that he had tried to protect me from. The fear and poverty his family lived in when he was young. The truth of living in a segregated city in the south in the 1950s. The racism he experienced and continues to experience to this day. And above all his resolute and passionate desire to provide a better life for his only son, away from the pains and struggles that he overcame. My dad is my hero and I don’t want to be a black man if I’m not like him.


Knowing our history is a crucial piece of understanding who we are.


My identity is first and foremost in being a born again, Bible believing, grace fueled, bought by the blood of Jesus, Christian. That is who I am. But I am also a Black man, it is part of who I am. And God created me that way with purpose and intentionality. My blackness does not take away from my citizenship in heaven nor does it add to it. But my blackness has meaning and it is a meaning I am choosing to educate myself on, embrace, and love. And I hope other black men and women do the same.


We need to learn black history as it truly is, diverse, beautiful, broken, bold, and often wonderful. I believe a greater understanding of our history will lead to generations of black and brown men and women who are proud, hopeful, imaginative, and ready to embrace who God has made them to be.



So what does black history month mean to me?


Hope.


Hope for a more unified Church as we embrace different traditions. Hope for more black and brown people embracing their heritage. Hope for more united families. Hope for more compassion in our cities as we grow in empathy for each other's experiences. Hope for more justice as we reflect on our history of injustice. Hope for greater artistic expression in our world as we value that which is different from what we’ve known. Hope for more young black and brown kids to embrace a not so impossible dream as they learn about what their ancestors have done. Hope for a more united world as people of all races celebrate what my people have done.



Celebrating black history brings me hope.