Halfway into Black History month 2016 and evidence of the impact of Black culture is everywhere. From Super Bowl 50's telecast opening with America's beloved Golden Girl, Betty White, dabbing, to the instantly-viral hip hop inspired floor routine of UCLA gymnast Sophina DeJesus, African Americans and their cultural imprint are front and center. Blacks couldn't be more excited about it, with good reason.
In the present cultural moment where "Black Lives Matter" and "Black Girl Magic" are at the forefront of discussions centering on African American recognition and achievement, there is also a larger societal shift occurring that may mark this time period as one that not only permanently reshapes the idea of Black History month, but also Blackness as a whole.
The window on the world - both individual and cultural -- that social media provides has played a crucial role in fueling the increased awareness of other cultures and their experiences amongst people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. For African Americans in particular, Blackness, what it means and what it stands for has been thrust under a microscope, put on trial, tested, probed and analyzed more in the past few years than ever before. From Raven Simone & Stacey Dash who publicly contest their own Blackness to those striving to, consciously or not, incorporate elements of Black culture into their identity, like Iggy Azealia, Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, and Racheal Dolezal, conversations about race and ethnicity are dominating the front page news.
There is no doubt that new recognition and attention are being given to the subject of and issues surrounding minority identities, which have not always been considered important or valid by majority culture. Consider the recent backlash against the 2016 Academy Awards, where the (mostly older, White, male) Academy failed to nominate any multicultural actors or movies for this year's Oscars, which the public response captured memorably by the trending hashtag #Oscarsowhite.
Ironically, last month's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, typically viewed as predictive of who will win on Oscar night, proved to be a diverse affair with minority actors and actresses winning nominations and awards voted on by their peers. The divergence of two authoritative bodies, tasked with literally bestowing awards on the same industry is just one of the more obvious examples of culture's contrasting vision of who should be seen and recognized, and by whom, and what does it all mean.
History is, of course, cyclical. While this resurgence of Black empowerment and cultural awareness may not necessarily be new, it does reflect a new way of existing in a world where information and human empathy meet the universal language of technology & sharing. Today the centuries-old fight for African American liberty and equality continues, only instead of notable Civil Rights leaders standing on the front lines, it is regular civilians armed with knowledge of the justice system, video cameras, and keyboards that are representing the cause. It's the muted voices of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and more who are fueling the fire of outcry against the injustices that have been witnessed and experienced by many African Americans for many, many years. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding these incidents and many more like them, a new kind of modern-day activism has been able to grow & flourish in the form of community champions, digital think pieces, bloggers, twitter activists and more. This latter-day movement has sparked community change & pushed for accountability in ways that previously weren't even imaginable such as the Justice Department suing the city of Ferguson over police misconduct, the trend of collegiate student bodies advocating for racial equality on campus and popular Black Lives Matters activist DeRay Mckesson announcing his run for Mayor for the city of Baltimore.
This renewed emphasis on human rights, and redefining Blackness has spurred a phenomenon of unapologetically Black expressions of individualism, art and culture brought to the forefront by some of America's most prominent influencers. The most recent example is the now highly debated performance by Beyoncé at SuperBowl 50. Her single "Formation" has been called one of the most "unapologetic" displays of Blackness in decades, stirring controversy and backlash because it features politically charged imagery focused on the lives of African Americans. As blogger Luvvie Ajay elucidates:
"...some white people can only tolerate Blackness when it's tame and timid. When it's an undercurrent, not a roaring wave...A Beyoncé who's talking about how Black she is, who's standing on top of a cop car that's drowning in New Orleans is a Beyoncé that people will not be able to stomach. It's a Beyoncé that white people will be uncomfortable about."
We are at a pivotal moment in culture - a time where the entire country is opening its eyes and having a fierce but surprisingly open dialogue about things that matter to us. The level at which race has surfaced, and the manner in which some people have become uncomfortable is arguably the best thing to happen to America in centuries. The way in which we finish this decade, and even this year will have a resounding impact on the way Blackness is perceived and accepted in the future. And the fact of this gives hope to people like me, knowing that one day, my own children won't be inheritors of a world where their humanity is up for debate simply because of the color of their skin or the kinkiness of their hair.
Changing the story is hard work, and it's not an overnight task, but it can be accomplished with persistently loud voices that challenge the mainstream in ways that lead to progressive, cumulative, collective success. In the words of Luvvie:
"I'm feeling super Black and you know what? I'm going to be in all Black this week. Why? Because can't nobody check me. It's Black History Month. I don't even care if it's not Black History Month, I'm gon' be super Black in March too, and in April, and May. Who gon' say something? Nobody."