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Celebrating Black History Month

February is Black History Month, an annual observance to recognize, honor, and celebrate the lives of Black Americans. We acknowledge both the triumphs and adversities that Black Americans have experienced, which provides the opportunity to see Black history as an inseparable and significant part of American history.

Recruiting Administrative Assistant at DePaul Administration in Rochester Jose Solis, Medication Coordinator at McKinley Square in Buffalo Jillian Johnson and Quality Management Specialist I at DePaul Administration in Depew Jonelle Cunningham share their reflections during Black History Month.

What does Black History Month mean to you and how do you celebrate it? 

Jose: It’s a time to revel in the rich history of African Americans, celebrate achievements,  and educate on the periods of sorrow, but most importantly, it is about recognition of an extremely marginalized identity whose wearers face the wrath of systemic injustice that has banished them to the shadows of society.

I celebrate by diving into Black literature, learning about the lived experiences of notable figures who paved the way for my people to live how we do today. Tremendous progress has been made, but there is a lot more work to be done.

Jillian: During Black History Month, African Americans get to highlight, acknowledge, appreciate and recognize those generations who came before us and who struggled and went through tumultuous times fighting for basic human rights, racial justice and equality across the board. We honor those still fighting and working daily to advance our culture while embracing the fullness of our lives.

Ashlee Eiland said it best: “Black History Month is not a 28-day exhibit, forgotten in the corner of America’s dark halls. It’s a remembering of terror that can’t taint dignity. Of struggle that can’t stain worth. Of unbridled joy and bigness. Of life in us. It’s testimony. It’s us. It’s all of us.”

I celebrate by continuing to educate myself and supporting and promoting Black-owned businesses. I raise awareness by teaching others what I know and promoting peace while attempting to eradicate ignorance about our culture. I also take a moment to acknowledge how far we have come even while knowing there’s still a long road ahead. 

Jonelle: It’s a time when the world recognizes the innovation, hard work and courage of African Americans that contributed to the world we live in now. It is the opportunity for everyone to learn, celebrate and appreciate the many hardships African Americans overcame so that people like me could live freely. It is also a time of reflection, to look at the present and recognize the work that still needs to be done.

In all honesty, growing up a minority in the Niagara Wheatfield area, I never celebrated Black History Month outside of the yearly school assemblies. Now that I have a family of my own, we make sure our kids partake in the Black History program at our church so they can learn more about our history than what is taught in schools. We also eat at locally Black-owned restaurants.

Which Black public figure inspires you? 

Jose: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many people are touched by his words and his relentless persistence, but I was always fascinated by his ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. Dr. King did not allow himself to succumb to his assailants as he understood that there was a much larger objective in sight. He taught me how to navigate and coexist within hostile environments where I was the target.

Jillian: Sarah Jakes Roberts is a young woman of faith and someone who took her mistakes and her trials and turned them into triumphs. She did not allow what happened in her past to dictate her future. She was able to fight through her pain, insecurities and personal battles and use those things as a stepping stone to where she now ministers and touches the lives those both in close proximity and from watching her online. 

What is a common misconception that people have about your culture?

Jose: That our struggles are a direct result of our incompetence or lack of effort. If you review history, you will find that the struggles that minorities face are just a result of the lack of opportunity – to hold positions in power, to vote, obtain homeownership, etc. The lack of opportunity has continued to manifest in generational distress. Minorities need to be provided the same path for everyone to attain a life filled with prosperity.

Reflect on a time where you felt that you were treated differently because of your race.

Jose: When I was in the fourth grade, I had an encounter with another individual during my first year at a new, predominantly white school. I was told to  ‘go back where I came from.’ This incident made me realize that who I am, because of the color of my skin, comes with a lot of societal consequences that I simply was not prepared for. 

Jillian: Unfortunately, I am reminded of this daily. For example, people of other races hold on to their purses a little tighter. I am watched and followed around stores, implying that I am going to steal something. I have also been overlooked even when I am qualified for a position. Just a few years ago, I was verbally assaulted with racial slurs and had eggs thrown at me on the walk to a nearby restaurant. 

Jonelle: During a recent grocery shopping  trip at Sam’s Club, I was stopped by the greeter and told she needed to see my membership card even though three white women passed by without needing to show their cards. She told me that some “hoodlums” had stolen from the store earlier that day so she wanted to verify that I was a member.  I did not want to cause a scene, so I showed the her my card and completed my shopping.

As I was leaving, I asked a staff member and the police officer at the door if what the greeter had told me was true, and both confirmed that it was a lie. I reflected on how sad this incident was, not just for me to have gone through this, but for the greeter to be so ignorant of her wrongdoing for profiling me as a “hoodlum” simply because I am Black.

Was there ever a time others made you feel ashamed or embarrassed of being Black?

Jose: Being Black in a predominantly white school can render feelings of imposter syndrome and feeling like you don’t belong. I want to stand our amongst my peers for for honorable reasons, not because of what I look like. I just wanted to blend in with everyone else. I found myself wanting to hide who I was so that I would be invisible to the line of fire.

Jillian: I am a strong individual, born and raised in the beautiful island of Jamaica. I am a Caribbean Black woman and no one on this Earth could ever make me feel ashamed or embarrassed of being Black. I hold my head up, my community adjusts my crown, and I walk with pride. Always.

Jonelle: Growing up in the suburb of Niagara Wheatfield and attending a predominantly white school, there were plenty of times I was made to feel ashamed of how dark my skin was or how different my hair was or just how different I was in general. I remember a specific time when a classmate said that ‘being Black means you’re ugly.’ That stuck with me for years, even with the reassurance from my family. I never felt beautiful because of that one comment from a little girl who didn’t know any better.

It wasn’t until I moved out of that school, learned more about Black culture, and was around more people who looked like me and accepted me for who I was that I was able to say I am Black and Black is beautiful! 

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