Our challenge during Black History Month: Resistance to IgnoranceJulianne Malveaux, Ph.D. / February 9, 2023
Each year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History sets a theme for Black History Month. This year the theme is Black Resistance. It is appropriate for a time such as this because it reflects the work we must do in a climate where there has been active retrenchment of our rights.
The 2022 elections reminded us that voter suppression efforts continue to erode our voting rights. The reduction of our voting rights is taking place as we prepare for the 2024 election. Already the far rights and their allies are attempting to steal the 2024 election by sidelining as many voters as possible. This will pressure our voting rights organization, and I know they are equal to the task.
Their work to prepare for 2024 is the epitome of Black resistance. In the academic realm, 36 states have passed laws restricting what can be taught in classrooms. These laws are specious and ignorant. Some say teachers can’t teach “critical race theory,” although no one attempts to introduce a higher-level legal concept to K-12 students. Others vaguely say nothing can be taught to make students “feel uncomfortable” about their origins.
Enslavement was uncomfortable. Lynching was uncomfortable. Undoubtedly, Tyre Nichols felt “uncomfortable” when beasts with badges beat him to death over a traffic stop. What many people do not know about American history is bound to make them uncomfortable. But as my grandma used to say, “ignorance is bliss.” We in academia must use our resistance to repel these malicious efforts. It is overtime for us to ensure that our collective history is reflective of reality.
Nobody wants anybody to “feel bad.” Instead, we want to take the truth and build on it. There is so much to resist that we must also resist the urge to become “too tired” to fight back. I’m ashamed to say that, years ago, I said that I was tired of marching. Wrong! We can never be too tired to march, protest, or stand up for what is right. I am profoundly grateful to the folks in Black Lives Matter who show up and show out in the face of injustice. In Los Angeles, they show up regularly to resist the anti-Blackness that riddles this city. In Washington, D.C., people show up to protest land use decisions that push poor and moderate-income people out of the city. In Memphis, folks are showing up to protest the murder of Tyre Nichols.
They are resisting, as we all must. Self-care is also a form of resistance. While we can never be “too tired” to resist, the wise among us will know when it is time to take a break. A leaky vessel can’t carry anybody’s water. When we are broken, we can’t heal anyone, much less our community. When we are healthy and whole, we are effective warriors. When we are not, we must ask ourselves if we are bringing our best selves to the struggle.
Nearly 150 years ago, at the end of Reconstruction, African Americans faced resistance to our post-enslavement gains. Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were passed. Vagrancy laws were passed. Those African Americans who had attained some wealth and status, including elective office, found themselves under attack. In that context, people like Ida B. Wells began to document lynchings to ensure that we all knew about the many attacks we were facing.
This present period is reminiscent of the post-Reconstruction era when obstacles were created to prevent further progress in the face of Black gains. It is no accident that the presidency of Barack Obama was followed by retrenchment in the subsequent presidency of the Orange Man, and Vice President Harris has been attacked in both racist and sexist terms. White resistance to Black progress must be met by Black resistance to ignorance.
That is our challenge this Black History Month. Our resistance must be structural, but it must also be personal. We must make decisions about how we resist, but we must resist. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass. What are you demanding, and how far will you go to ensure that our collective social and economic justice demands are met?
Julianne Malveaux is an author, economist and a former president of Bennett College.