February is Black History Month
Updated: Mar 31
A Note from Dulles Triangles President, Hugh Paige
When I think of notable Black History Month figures, I tend to remember those we were taught about in school. Sadly, very few openly queer people come to mind. Influential people like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith, and Bayard Rustin were sometimes mentioned, but their LGBTQ+ identities usually weren’t. Or, more likely, they were omitted because teaching any sort of LGBTQ+ history was taboo. Identifying as queer was deemed secondary to their Blackness, and therefore not worthy enough of even a quick side note.
As we head into another 28 days of celebrating historical Black excellence, it’s important to bring the legacies of Black LGBTQ+ people back into the light. It’s the least we can do to present a full, nuanced idea of America’s Black experience. Black queer futures depend on it. Black History Month began as “Negro History Week” in the United States in 1926, intended to create a coordinated effort to teach Black history in public schools nationwide. Historian Carter G. Woodson felt that “if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Though initially not widely accepted, by 1970, the week was expanded into Black History Month at the proposal of Black educators and students at Kent State University. Six years later, the yearly celebration was officially endorsed by President Gerald Ford.
What’s resulted in the decades since is supposed to be an opportunity for people of different races and their institutions to address the impact of omitting African Americans from their roles in building this country and our institutions; and to honor our ancestry. What we’ve been given, most of the time, is acknowledgement of essentially the same five: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker, and Malcolm X. The Black Queer folks who wrote, spoke, marched, disrupted, and made history alongside them are often left out. If they are mentioned at all, their queerness is either sensationalized—like King’s confidante Rustin, chief orchestrator of the March on Washington. His contribution is overshadowed by the sensationalist take on his involvement.
I didn’t realize how much this casual omission mattered until I was asked at work and in our social club about different role models and sources of inspiration, and how they impacted our culture at large. It seemed as if history began with Laverne Cox, Don Lemon, Jason Collins, Jonathan Capehart, Billy Porter, DeRay McKesson, Wanda Sykes, and Keith Boykin—to name a few—rather than these Black LGBTQ+ people having taken up the mantle our queer ancestors had left for us. The traditional Black History month has betrayed Black queer people, and in turn the entire Black community, with the same names being trotted out each year for obligatory book reports, school plays, and sermons. We can place some of the blame for the homophobia in the Black community and possibly ourselves as well at the feet of forced religion on us for our complicity in not acknowledging the Black Queer Community. I see today as an opportunity for us to resurrect the legacies of our Queer Ancestors. It’s a chance for those of us who have taken up the reins to pay homage to those who paved the way for us. Let’s remember Marsha Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Ma Rainey, Lorraine Hansbury, and so many other Black Queer members of our community.
Use whatever tools you have to uplift your community, no matter how large or small they may be. It’s said that one can’t know where they’re going if they don’t know where they’ve come from. My beautiful communities: we, too, have been here, have been Black and queer, and still aren’t going anywhere.
Below are some additional information links regarding Black Queerness: NBC News. 16 queer black pioneers who made history, https://www.nbcnews.com/.../black-history-month-17-lgbtq...
Oxford College Library Scholar Blog. LGBTQ+ History Month: Centering Black Queer Histories, https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/.../lgbtq-history-month.../
Microsoft Bing image search for “queer black history images,” https://www.bing.com/images/search...