Black History Month initially began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Initiated by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American scholar, educator, and publisher, the aim was to include into the annals of American history, the significant names and notable accomplishments of its black citizens. Black history is American history, and in 1976 the week was expanded to an entire month in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
I believe that Black History month, however, should not just be considered a momentary celebration of successful African Americans. Black History month need not be reduced to merely a month when African Americans are awarded the gift of America acknowledging them for simply surviving the brutality of slavery and segregation. Black History Month should be just one of the many weapons in the America’s arsenal to fight against the inclination to tell a story that does not include the voices of all of her citizens. Black History Month is the persistent and passionate pounding of the drum of diversity.
The strength of any community or country are the voices of those who have been marginalized. Diversity is needed because no narrative is complete when voices are missing. Black History month is an intentional pause in the proclamation of the American story; a pause that is designed to discipline our steps, direct our conversations, and demand we march to the rhythm of inclusion and not just inspirational stories.
As a pastor, author, and professional communicator, I understand all too well the need to adequately and accurately tell a story that includes those on the margins, and invites them to participate in the story in ways that validate their often forgotten voices.
As an autistic African American, I am continually developing an even deeper understanding and appreciation for the role and responsibility to discipline myself, encourage my neighbors and organize my nation to carve out the critical space for the voices of the black and disabled community.
After years of struggling with finding my way and finding my voice in a world that did not understand me or validate my voice, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s) in December of 2014. Since that time I have become increasingly aware of the past pressure to conform to a narrative that didn’t validate my culture or my neurology. It was as though I marched to an entirely different beat. Like many in our communities, my voice was silent and being silenced, often times without me having a complete awareness that it was even happening. The beat I was made to march to was a burden and the song I was made to sing only led to shame.
Yet I believe that out of the ashes can rise something beautiful and from the bottom can be found those who will be the bearers of good news that can and will complete the story. From the burden can come an unsuspecting benefit. This is the both the burden and the beauty of Black History Month. It is the simultaneous acknowledgement of omission from the story and the aspiration to find the opportunities to share in the story.
Simply put, the need for Black History is the very validation for its existence.
In February of 1968, just months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a riveting message entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” In that message he points to the dangers of always insisting on the need to be acknowledged, praised, or admired. In his message, Dr. King warns against the danger of what he labels “snobbish exclusivism.” This term means that without discipline and direction, it is easy to exclude others because it is human nature to succumb to the “Drum Major Instinct;” the instinct to rule.
In the closing moments of his message, Dr. King transitions from eloquently describing the dangers of an unchecked “Drum Major Instinct” to the beauty of allowing the same instinct to be inspired by a need to serve others. As he reflects on the future of his life and his legacy, he points the listeners away from self-promotion and self-preservation and instead channels the “Drum Major Instinct” as a vehicle to serve the world.
In the spirit of Dr. King’s poignant words as well as the responsibility of belonging to a painful but purposeful legacy of advocates and activists in the autism and disability communities, my aim much like the aim of Black History Month is to simply serve others and serve our nation not by being a drum major, but by simply being a drum:
A drum that beats like a heart that keeps the frustrated, fragile, yet forward looking country called America moving toward the goal of instinctively and intentionally including the voices of all her citizens in the story she tells.
A drum that beats loudly and proudly, not from a surface sense of accomplishment or a need to be acknowledged, but from a place of passion for providing the rhythm and discipline to a nation that can otherwise lose its steps and miss its beat.
A drum that that does not circumvent the song, but that provides structure to the songs and the stories that are sung and told.
Drums provide direction. Drums promote unity. Drums give each instrument, each storyteller, each melody, and each lyric a place at the table and a place to tell their story so that what is heard, seen, and most importantly felt is real, authentic, and soul stirring.
Black History and disability advocacy is the drum that beats the sound of diversity and inclusion into the song that is being played and the stories that are being told so that when the march ends, our communities and our country would have proudly progressed toward a more perfect union with passion, purpose, and precision.
If we need drum majors, then we also need drums.
Keep playing. Keep pounding. Keep proclaiming and together we will make music that will be the soundtrack to the movement toward equality.