As a child growing up in New York, Black History Month was a time that excited me and made me proud. Each year, teachers in my classes would provide inspiring stories about famous and important Black Americans from history, telling us, for example, about the genius and creativity of George Washington Carver, the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, and the bravery of Rosa Parks.
While I and the nation came to realize later that this approach to Black History and culture was insufficient, as a child I was uplifted by Black History Month. I felt a connection to those leaders we learned about, knowing before I truly understood why, that it meant something powerful that they looked like me – more like me than the other leaders we regularly learned about in school.
It was heartening to hear stories of leaders overcoming challenges, especially when they stood out, because growing up, I often felt like I didn’t truly “fit in” in most surroundings. Having a Jamaican father and a Mexican mother was (and still is) not very common. In my majority Black elementary school, I looked like the other students, but seemed to be the only one who spoke Spanish at home. And when my family would travel to Guadalajara, Mexico each summer to visit with my mother’s family, my two sisters and I had the brownest skin by far of anyone we saw there.
I eventually made peace with being “other.” As I entered college, I resolved to learn about both aspects of my identity deliberately, to know my multiple heritages as well, or even better than the average person. I would overcome anyone’s doubts about my “belonging” by knowing as much as I could about where I came from.
But in my experience, the two sides of my identity often existed completely independent of each other, perhaps as a result of my emphasizing one side in order to fit in. I was either a Black man among my Black peers, or a Mexican American among Latino peers. The two largely didn’t coexist. And in most instances, it seemed like issues of race – specifically being Black – had no place in Latino settings, and vice versa; issues of ethnicity – being Latino – were not relevant in context of the Black community. So I kept the two aspects of my identity separate.
It was in adulthood, here in Washington, DC, that I first came to really understand the fact that there are many, many people who look a lot like me. That significant numbers of people from most Latin American countries are in fact of African descent, and that they have been overlooked, if not explicitly erased. And until recently, this reality has been a minor point, at times treated as tangential to the agenda of the Hispanic community in the United States.
But that all changed last year, hopefully for good. With the shocking murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the realization that there were so many others, the majority of Americans have begun to discuss race in this country.
The conversation is ongoing; the United States is still grappling with the issue of race - specifically its historical and contemporary relationship with Black Americans. But it seems like that process has taken a real step forward, on a scale not seen since civil rights era of the late 60s.
And as part of that conversation, the Latino community has begun to explore what the issue means for it, both in terms of Latinos’ relationship to the Black American population, and the fact that a significant number of Latinos are Black ourselves. As Latinos in the US, we need to be intentional about learning and understanding Black history, and be appreciative and understanding of Black culture and its contributions to society.
And as part of a broader reckoning with race, we as Latinos also need to realize, examine, and fight the anti-Blackness that exists in our community. For racism and systemic oppression were introduced as part of and facilitated by colonization in Latin American countries too.
Black History Month provides a good opportunity for this kind of reflection. And hopefully through it, more Black children – including Black Latinos and others – can realize that they too are part of the narrative; and not just for one month out of the year.
As the slogan this year says, “Black history is American history.” I would add that Afro-Latino history is also Black history, as well as Latino history. And all of it is part of American history.
Marco A. Davis is President & CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), in Washington, DC.