Reflecting on America through Black History
Mohamed Nur, a Senior Associate on our Portfolio team, wrote this piece for NPGo as part of our recognition and celebration of Black History Month.February 24, 2022
For the majority of America, Black History Month is largely treated as a token gesture. It is often used to commercialize Black historical figures or further sanitize the bold nuances of the people and the history the commemoration aims to honor to fit into the doctrine of white supremacy.
The current political landscape in which we find ourselves—that erases nuance and complexity to privilege viral sensationalism and disinformation—is a damning assessment of how far we have left to go.
From the disingenuous debates on critical race theory (if your preschooler is reading Kimberle Crenshaw or Derrick Bell, then congratulations they are in law school) to the chilling wave of book bans and regressive education bills flooding state legislatures, an honest and serious effort to understand and center Black history is more important now than ever in our national discourse.
This month is meant to celebrate both the triumphs and adversities that Black people have traversed and center that rich legacy that is indelibly part of American history.
For me, Black History Month is an opportunity to commemorate the legacies of those who struggled before me, reconcile the centuries of trauma and suffering that persist today, and face those challenges to build the world that our ancestors dreamed of.
To put it plainly, Black history is American history. Understanding the trajectory and nuances of the Black experience—and this is a friendly reminder that Black history and blackness is not monolithic but wonderfully diverse—in America is critical to understanding ourselves and this country.
Family Context & Upbringing
I was born and raised in Maine as the son of Somali refugees. Growing up in one of the whitest states in the country, I was very aware of my blackness at an early age. A five minute drive in any direction from my neighborhood and I was reminded of how different I was compared to the rest of my environment.
I remember how anxious I felt whenever people glared at my family at the grocery store. How scared I would be by the drive-by slurs of a gruff, disgruntled trucker telling me to “go back to Africa” or how I dreaded going to school because of the daily bullying and harassment I faced for being Black, Muslim, and an immigrant.
Racism, xenophobia, and bigotry were commonplace; it was a defining feature of growing up Black in an all-white space. My mother fled a civil war, traversed across oceans, arrived in a new country—in the middle of an ice storm no less—to build a life for herself and her children. We quickly realized that the American Dream she sought was only applicable if you were white.
In school, I hardly learned about anyone who looked like me or who had similar experiences. I internalized the lack of reflection and centering of Black people and Black history in my education to mean that people who looked like me didn’t matter. This was devastating for a little Black boy trying to make sense of who he is in a hostile environment, and it reinforced the idea that I somehow didn’t belong.
Black History Month was one of the few times I saw white folks somewhat interested in Black history. At least during February, classrooms would attempt—to varying degrees of success—to treat Black figures with the same level of attention that other white historical figures received throughout the year. There would be a 15 min lecture that either mythologized and grossly oversimplified Dr. King or Rosa Parks, and we would only ever “study” those two specific leaders. But beyond that minimal effort, there would be no discussion or recognition of Black people in the classroom. The mere fact that Black history is engaged in “earnest” in February demonstrates how necessary Black History Month is in providing an anchoring framework for educating people on the contributions, legacies, and experiences of Black people in America.
I wish I had learned more about Black history in the classroom growing up. I wish I had more Black educators growing up. The fact that I didn’t have a Black teacher until my first semester of college is frankly sad. Black children deserve to have their histories and experiences reflected in their education to the same degree to which white children are automatically entitled.
The education I couldn’t find in school, I found elsewhere. I discovered opportunities in my community to learn more about Black history and reflect on my place in it. I became involved with community-based organizations dedicated to fighting for immigrant rights, progressive criminal legal reform, and educational equity and access for all students—all under the banner for racial justice and equity. Those spaces and the people I met through them became my sanctuary – it was the first time I felt like I had a place in Maine and that my voice and experiences not only mattered but were necessary.
The passion for social justice that sparked for me more than a decade ago continues to drive me. I am grateful for the mentors and allies I made and how they challenged and refined my thinking to constantly interrogate the systems and spaces I occupy to reflect and build the world I wanted to live in.
We are at a critical juncture in our country where Black history is openly being erased or obscured in schools across America through partisan gamesmanship and for political expediency. This is the exact moment for people who espouse equity, justice, and freedom as the defining features of our country to take a stand and to say it bluntly “put your money where your mouth is.”
This wave of modern-day McCarthyism playing out in classrooms and school board meetings are symptoms of the larger, systemic issues at the core of our nation’s dysfunction. We have yet to meaningfully reconcile and confront the centuries of suffering that too many communities have had to endure. It underscores how much work we all have left to do—and until we do—this campaign against an honest, inclusive education of our history will have devastating consequences for our students and our democracy for decades to come.
Honoring Black history in Philanthropy
The work to honor this month and build a better society for marginalized communities starts with making the spaces you sit in better and more inclusive than when you first found them.
With only 4% of philanthropic dollars in the U.S. going to organizations led by people of color, I recognize the privileged and unique role I occupy working within the philanthropic sector. Since joining New Profit, and especially this month, I am intentionally reflecting on and reconciling with the harm that the industry at large has had and continues to perpetrate on vulnerable communities. It compels me to bring my voice and perspective to this work to center historically underinvested communities, leaders, and organizations.
Part of that work is recognizing and addressing those inequities head-on and not shying away from the complexity—and messiness—it can bring. I am excited to work for an organization that is committed and actively leaning into the discomfort and challenges this work demands. I’m grateful for the intentionality and focus New Profit brings to center our work in proximity, equity, and acknowledging and solving the imbalances of investments that have defined the field.
That said, we cannot be complacent in our progress. We must continually reassess our work, recognize the power dynamics we hold as a funder, hold ourselves and our peers accountable to the communities we aim to support and remind ourselves that we all can and must do better.
This year’s theme for this Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness, which is particularly poignant as we all continue to navigate the pandemic and understand the disproportionate impact it has had on Black communities. This work is exhausting. It can often feel like shouting into a void, but I am reminded— particularly this month—of the courageous people who came to this work before me. The courage and conviction they held in seemingly impossible circumstances give me strength—and when I veer too deep into my cynicism—hope.
Black History Month, for me, represents an opportunity for intentional reflection, deep curiosity, and unbridled appreciation and gratitude of those who have come before me who have struggled and fought to get us to this moment.
Black history transcends a single month; it is our responsibility to honor all that this month aims to capture throughout the year and in the course of our lives.
This month, I plan to celebrate the rich legacy and victories, mourn the tragedies and lives lost, and confront the challenges we face head-on, without reservation or hesitation. I will continue to learn, disrupt and dismantle inequitable systems to realize the “American Dream” for those enduring the nightmare.
It will take all of us, together, to build a world that does not yet exist: one where each and every person is truly free. I hope this month inspires you to join in this lifelong commitment to justice.