Black History Month 2021 is More Important Than Ever
Deborah Thompson Austin ‘87
Remembering our history and how it has impacted Black communities is one way we honor Black History Month. When I think about our past, I am immediately drawn to what a year 2020 was with the three major crises that invoked intense difficulties and trouble. We began 2020 with the Coronavirus pandemic, then the national awareness of social injustice, and ended the year with a Presidential election that stressed dissonances across the country. Each crisis demonstrated examples of overwhelming struggles and revealed increased burdens for Black communities.
Black History Month is a chance to highlight the struggles by drawing upon our stories, our history and think about recent issues to break down systems of prejudice. As a professional in healthcare administration, a mom, and a life-long Aggie advancing equity I reflect on the three crises to highlight racial injustices that permeated 2020 so we can imagine paths toward healing and Blackjoy together.
Crisis #1: coronavirus
As a healthcare professional, I have been involved in addressing bias among employees and coordinating the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. Every day I think of the number of deaths in the United States from Coronavirus; over 440,000 people will have died by the time we commence Black History Month.
For most of the pandemic, we watched some government leaders fail to acknowledge, react and respond through science and health education and the slow actions towards responding. Each day revealed inequities in healthcare. Hurdles that bombarded communities of color including inaccessible healthcare, lack of health insurance, lacking remote work accommodations, and varying classifications of essential workers across the country. According to the Center for Disease Control, Blacks make up about 13% of the population in the United States but are 2.1 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than any other race.
Our communities hear the stories of Black people being denied basic services including, testing and now the vaccine. Blacks have received only 5% of the Covid 19 vaccine. While we see a shift with the recent change in our countries leadership, Black people are still suffering and limited on accessibility. It’s not only important to ensure that all communities are supported.
Crisis #2: racial injustice awareness
Few guides instruct us how to manage pandemics but nothing prepares us for terrifying crises surrounding social injustices, especially when the crisis could happen in any one of our communities.
In late 2011 my husband and I bought a new house in a neighborhood that had a great school district. We were excited because, for the first time, our son would be able to walk to and from school. Right before his grade school began, we took our son on test runs so that he knew how to navigate from home, which way to turn, and how much time it would take to return home. A few months after we moved, on February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an innocent and young Black man was killed for wearing a hoodie. My husband and I looked at each other, reminded that our son had the same height and build as Trayvon, and worried that this could have been him. As any parent in this situation knows, what proceeded through grade school and beyond was deep anxiety subsiding only when we heard a call or saw a text that said: “I’m home”.
A couple of years passed and in 2014 we watched Eric Garner mutter his last words before dying: “I can’t breathe.” A year later, Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging, all for being Black. All we thought was “our son jogs three times a week. Could he be next? Could he suffer the same fate as Ahmaud?” The thoughts added another layer of anxiety.
Then on May 25th, 2020, we watched the videos of George Floyd. He was driving a nice car – my son drives a nice car. He purchased items at the corner store, an activity my son could do. Just like the incidents above, this was another Black man killed, whose final words were “I can’t breathe”.
Crisis #3: voting rights
I thought a lot about voting rights under COVID-19 and how far we’ve come since the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Established so that no one could be denied the right to vote based on race or color, many hurdles still existed for Black communities that made it difficult to vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed to outlaw discriminatory voting practices particularly in the South. Tactics used to suppress voters included making voting less convenient, physically intimidating voters, and physically attacking prospective voters. Even though it’s been 150 years since the 15th Amendment was established, and over 50 years since the Voting Rights Act passed, the long lines during COVID-19 parallel the exhaustive measures of 1870. Just as a hundred years ago, despite efforts to decrease voting, people traveled great distances to vote and stood in lines for up to 11 hours to participate in our democratic process. And then the worst travesty in US history, the January 6th insurrection, where privileged folk stormed the US Capitol with the alleged attempt to murder and claim the presidency.
Our ability to discuss and reflect on issues during Black History Month is a way Black folk can remember the endurance and fortitude of our community that has existed for centuries. Reflection on history is how we can make a difference for future generations and have discourse to disrupt long-standing systems of prejudice. Black History Month 2021 is more important than ever this year if we are to affirm not to go back or give into racial injustices but to press forward and to bolster all our communities. I am continually reminded of the late Congressman John Lewis’s call to action lets “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble” and for this Black History Month, I reflect so that we can all find some good trouble to lead through the struggles and celebrate joy.