Intersectionality and Black History
How and why Black History Month is not one-dimensional
Written by Cael A. Shaw
It’s easy to understand that most social issues are multi-dimensional — but what does this mean, really? It means that most of the issues in societal America (and even in political America) are intersectional. Where there is an issue of race, there is an issue of gender, sexuality, class and more. During the height of the abolitionist movement, great abolitionists like David Walker, William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglas were fighting to abolish the institution of slavery, while powerful women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Ann Shadd were advocating for the women of the nation — Black, white, Indigenous, Latinx, etc. These issues are all connected to each other; they always have been, and they always will be.
Where there is an issue of race, there is an issue of gender, sexuality, class and more.
I had the privilege to take a look at Black History Month through an intersectional lens by leading interviews with several Black and African American leaders in our Cleveland community. I sat down and talked to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Regional Director Marquez Brown to get a perspective from the labor movement. I also talked to Cleveland Municipal Office of Equal Opportunity Director Tyson Mitchell to see a government perspective.
*The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity*
In my talk with Tyson Mitchell (he/him), I asked several key questions involving Black History Month from a municipal government perspective:
Cael: What does Black History month mean to you through the lens of public administration?
Mitchell: As a Black man and public administrator, Black History Month means 28 days to acknowledge the contributions and history of African Americans that occurs over a period of 365 days. A time where we can celebrate the beauty of Black History that includes Black art, Black contributions to society and even Black love. Black History Month helps us understand where we have come from which helps guide where we are going.
Cael: Black history increasingly intersects with Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Women's history, and more. Why do you think so many white people do not see it this way?
Mitchell: There is an undeniable intersection between Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Women’s history, immigrants and many other underrepresented groups. The history of all these groups help shape the historical and continued development of culture within the United States. I would hope that we all understand from Black History Month the historical context that relates to present day issues, such as the impacts of poverty, colonialism and structural racism has had on Black people’s lives. Ask yourself, why did these historical injustices occur and do the vestiges of that historical treatment manifest itself today?
We are growing to understand that climate change, poverty, COVID-19 and other healthcare issues disproportionately affect Black and African American communities.
Mr. Mitchell’s final response makes one think. Almost three years ago, the murder of George Floyd sparked several months of civil unrest and protests reminiscent of the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s. It was during this time that a lot of young people opened their eyes to the widespread inequities of our “great” nation. We began to deepen our understanding of issues facing our fellow Americans and, more importantly, we renewed the fight to right these wrongs. We are growing to understand that climate change, poverty, COVID-19 and other healthcare issues disproportionately affect Black and African American communities.
One of the largest communities that intersects with Black history in the United States is the labor force. Through my conversation with Mr. Brown (he/him), it became clear that while we are all workers, the historic labor movement and Black history are distinctly connected:
Cael: What does Black History Month mean to you as a labor leader?
Brown: Black History Month is truly a time to reflect on where we have been as Black people and Black workers, where we are and how much more there is to do. I believe that Black leaders and workers played a key role in organizing labor unions and rising in the ranks to help secure and improve pay and working conditions. We do all of this while fighting against ongoing discrimination; there are times where I am the only African American person in the room and yet I am still fighting for what I believe and fighting against injustices.
Cael: You say that sometimes you are the only African American in the room, so how would you say elevating Black voices can be a benefit for us all?
Brown: Once you elevate other voices, you get to see how to make things better. It’s about bringing together different lived experiences and cultures. When you look at some jobs that, traditionally, African American folks have, they are the lower paying jobs. When no one is there to ask, “how do we build a pathway to bring them to a career path that elevates them from poverty or whatever situation they are in?,” we are going to have a continued cycle of problems in the workforce until someone brings that up.
Cael: Piggy-backing off of that, in what ways does the labor movement intersect with Black history?
Brown: When you look at activists like A. Philip Randolph who was someone who went on to really be the voice of Black workers throughout the civil rights movement. So much now that we have the Randolph Institute that deals with a lot of civil rights issues within the modern labor movement. The work and pressure that Randolph was able to do really led to the likes of Presidents FDR and Harry Truman ending discrimination in the defense industry and armed forces, and it established the fair employment practices commission to enforce these policies. I feel like a lot of people don’t see the connection between the labor movement and Black history; people don’t realize that when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis, Tennessee to support 1,300 Black sanitation workers who were on strike. Or when people look at his “I Have a Dream” speech, it was MLK’s March on Washington, but you have to look at the rest of the name which was “For Jobs and Freedom.”
Celebrating and learning about Black history should not be limited to one month.
I wrapped up these interviews with a similar question: “What can young people, specifically Cleveland State students, do to celebrate Black History Month other than simply posting on our Instagram stories?”
The answer? Get involved! Find and support a local Black-owned business, Black artists or nonprofit organizations. Read books by Black authors, attend events that benefit African American communities and truly learn about the history of African Americans. Learn about all the different ways you can be an ally!
None of this matters if you only do it in February. Celebrating and learning about Black history should not be limited to one month. Being an ally for everyone year-round is the way to celebrate Black History Month (February), Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), Hispanic Heritage Month (Sep. 15 - Oct. 15), Women’s History Month (March), Pride Month (June), Indigenous Peoples Month (November) and so many other American and international communities who have just a month to celebrate. Learn something new this month and do something other than a social media post to support the Black and African American community!