African-American History Month Dos and Don'ts

February 4, 2019

I’ve had a tenuous relationship with African-American History Month since the first February I was aware it was African-American History Month. At my elementary school, a bulletin board boasted so many shiny red and green borders on a black background, it startled me.  The floating faces of Booker T. Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Frederick Douglass became indistinguishable. I worked so hard to make out their features on the too-dark Xerox copies of poor photographs, I ended up not seeing much at all.

Today, the bulletin board diagonal from my office door asks, and has asked for months, in big gold letters, “Why study a language?” As writers, we all study language. Sometimes we’re conscious of it, sometimes not. But every time we write one word and scratch it out for another, we’re thinking of the ways our language affects us and others.

For me, the board’s question is a really Black question. A question about striving to belong and isolate, about legitimacy, about community. Why do I characterize my desire to write and turn my utterances into art as a need? Why do I choose to contribute my voice to a conversation that has continued for centuries?

This February, let’s study the language (not just who they were and what they did) of the authors missing from my middle school’s hallway. Revisit Langston Hughes. Someone once told me that in Hughes’s The Big Sea, he calls the Harlem Renaissance “the period when Harlem was in vogue.” The text says, in plain black and white, “the period when the Negro was in vogue.” Don’t get the language wrong.

Don’t be a lazy Af-Am Lit syllabus. Don’t only remember Hughes and Angelou and Morrison and DuBois. And leave room for the current century: Samiya Bashir, Jamel Brinkley, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Terrance Hayes, Angela Flournoy, Kiese Laymon, Toni Newman, Danez Smith, and Tracy K. Smith. Add to this list.

Discover. Put in work. Find a poet almost too soulful for his years, like Derrick Austin in his debut collection of poems, Trouble the Water. Find someone who knows the power of her voice at an age when most of us were still afraid to speak up in a college classroom, like Arriel Vinson in her essay titled, “Black Language Shouldn’t Have to Be Muted for White Readers” in Electric Literature.

And buy Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro immediately.

D. Scot Miller, writer, artist, teacher, and curator, in his Afro-Surreal Manifesto, writes, “Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it.”

We live on a planet where police departments and media outlets aren’t ready to call what’s clearly a hate crime a hate crime, whether it’s an attack with a noose and a bottle of bleach on a Chicago street, or a Miami man running with a gun and mouthful of slurs towards kids protesting on MLK Day.

Look at the many worlds African-American authors create. Study their languages—what’s on the surface, and what hovers above and below—even if the languages aren’t yours. You may feel as if you don’t understand. But you’re engaging. Maybe we need less head-to-head.  Heart-to-heart is a decent start at empathy.

Erica Dawson


Erica Dawson
AWP Board of Trustees
University of Tampa

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