Black History Month – A Reflection Backwards and Looking Ahead

By: Omega Menkir

February is a month that the world has dedicated to reflecting and remembering the histories and contributions of Black people to society, as we know it over the centuries, decades, and including their most recent innovations and contributions.

This month includes updating the curriculum for children to take some time to reflect on what Black scientists, businesspersons, activists, and more have added to the world we had to make it the world we know today. From Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X to Madam CJ Walker and Patricia Bath, there is a long list of staple individuals whom we look to in their significant contribution to the world we live in today.

However, numerous exceptional individuals have also used their brains and hearts to help make our world a better one. A great example would be Mark Dean’s co-invention of the personal computer and the PC colour monitor, as well as the creator of the technology that makes keyboards, printers, and mice able to interact with our computers. Mark Dean plays a significant part in the technological era we see today and all its effects. We should also take a minute to thank James E. West, the microphone co-inventor, without which the endless Zoom meetings would not work half as effectively. With the current global pandemic, there is no doubt that we are all thankful for technology and its ability to connect, solve, and entertain all.

Unfortunately, the Western world did not begin with its arms open to African American’s contributions to society. In the 1920s, when lynching and race riots plagued the United States, W.E.B. Dubois launched a children’s magazine called “The Brownies Book.” which helped them reflect upon their beauty, the joy of being Black, and to help them find beauty and strength in themselves to build resilience against a world outside their doors that greeted them with closed arms and a skeptical eye. There is no doubt that these works helped inspire the brilliant inventors and individuals that have been a part of Black history and the fight for equality in the Western world and have inspired the uplifting of Black voices and faces as a part of our society.

In recent years, many observers of and participants in Black History Month have discussed the potential celebration of the month as not only a reflection of our past but to include innovations and achievements yet to come by, also considering February as “Black Futures Month.” With that being said, this is a fantastic opportunity to look at achievements that are more current and the upcoming works of brilliant Black minds at work.

In celebrating Black futures during this Black History (or Futures) Month, let’s look outside the Western world! Another Black brain deserving of praise is Nzambi Matee, a Nairobian entrepreneur and inventor. At 29, she founded a start-up called Gjenge Makers which recycles plastic waste into bricks that are stronger than concrete. We currently live in a world where the average consumer and individual are always almost shamed for using single-use plastics while big corporations and businesses continue burning holes in the ozone and destroying our oceans and climate.

It is a beautiful thing to see an individual dedicated to addressing large amounts of waste in the form of consumer used plastic waste in large quantities, not to mention she uses those materials to address another issue – decent shelter. Her plastic bricks are tested to hold twice the weight threshold of concrete blocks, and this amazing idea has created over 100 job opportunities in her community.

Anyone active on social media at the moment must have heard of Gorilla Glue Girl, or Tessica Brown, who went viral after using Gorilla Glue to keep her ponytail slicked and in place and ended up with a longer ‘do than she’d bargained for. Although her trials and tribulations were a worldwide meme, we cannot stop there and MUST recognize the amazing work of Ghana-born doctor Michael K. Obeng, located in Beverly Hills, who underwent the almost half a day surgery used to help break down and remove the Gorilla Glue instead of simply shaving her head or undergoing invasive surgery.

There is something to be said about the patience and brilliance of those who take the time to provide individuals and groups with the best solution for their specific needs, instead of the one-cure-fits-all approach that Western medicine often has, ignoring racial differences in research and then in practice. We wish Dr. Obeng the best in continued growth and popularity until his name is as popular in the world of body modification as the infamous Dr. Miami.

Last but not least, Canadian Black greatness, our very own Scarborough born and raised Abel Tesfaye, an Ethiopian artist better known by his stage name “The Weeknd,” wowed audiences during the 55th Super Bowl by being the first solo Canadian to headline the Super Bowl halftime show! How’s that for some creative Black greatness for a worldwide show?

2020 was a rough year for Black people in America as racial tensions rose to a violent and stressful point during the political happenings of that year. There was a point where opening the news was beyond exhausting, and hashtags to remember Black names were coming out as steadily as hashtags for fleeting trending topics that come and go as if those lives reduced to Twitter trends weren’t permanently lost and didn’t leave a hole of trauma in their wake. But through activism, resilience, and outcry, we moved.

In this modern internet era, Black culture has become synonymous with popular culture. We see phrases, hairstyles, and demeanours, previously mocked for being primarily Black, now rocket in popularity and approval as non-Black bodies make these behaviours appropriate and acceptable in a mainstream context. Again, we move forward.

With the emerging wave of anti-Asian racism and violence in the face of COVID-19, it is saddening to see other groups experience the same nonsensical discrimination for a factor outside of their control. It is essential for us all to stand against any sort of discrimination in our community. Without quoting the full poem “First they came” by Martin Niemoller, there seems to be no more appropriate month to ensure that this message sinks in: Discrimination against one is discrimination against all.

February is a month we all know to have been dedicated to the acknowledgement of Black voices and contributions to the world we know today. However, it is not only the big names of our historical past that we must learn about, but we should also remember to keep our “face to the rising sun,” in the words of Kanye West, and not forget about the beautiful and bright future of a society that upholds all its people as equally worthy as we continue to move into the future.

References:

Bergensia. First they came. May 15, 2020. https://bergensia.com/first-they-came/

Chris Rock: Black History Month. Time. February 12, 2015. https://time.com/3707793/chris-rock-black-history-month/

Corbley, Andy. Kenyan Woman’s Startup Recycles Waste Into Plastic Bricks 5x Strength of Concrete. Good News Network.  February 6, 2021. https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/young-woman-in-kenya-makes-plastic-bricks-out-of-recycled-waste/

Fenner, Justin. 10 Modern Luxuries that Wouldn’t Exist Without Black Inventors. The Robb Report. February 10, 2021. https://robbreport.com/gear/black-inventions-that-power-modern-life-1234596215/#!

Holmes, Anna. The Magazine That Helped 1920s Kids Navigate Racism. The Atlantic. February 12, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/02/how-w-e-b-du-bois-changed-black-childhood-america/617952/

Lau, Melody. Watch the Weeknd Make History as the First Solo Canadian to Headline The Super Bowl Halftime Show. CBC. February 7, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/music/watch-the-weeknd-make-history-as-the-first-solo-canadian-to-headline-the-super-bowl-halftime-show-1.5905039

Newby, Blake. The Black Plastic Surgeon Responsible for Removing the Gorilla Glue from Tessica Brown’s Hair. Essence. February 11, 2020. https://www.essence.com/beauty/dr-obeng-tessica-brown/