As I work to bring more diversity to our family of artists, I’m thinking about Black History Month in new, more nuanced ways. So is Chicago-based fashion and lifestyle photographer, Martine Séverin. Today, I want to share with you not just some of Martine’s beautiful recent images, but also a powerful, honest piece she wrote exploring her lifelong ambivalence about BHM and, ultimately, her gratitude for the questions it raises—for her and all of us. I hope you’ll give it a read, and let us know what you think.
Why I don’t like Black History Month or so I Thought
By Martine Severin
Memories of walking through the halls of my elementary and high school where ubiquitous posters of the All-Stars of Black History tacked to bulletin boards scuttle across my mind.
Through most of my years in school, I was one of, if not the only Black person in my class. Black History Month for me, at that time, consisted of lesson plans taught by well-meaning white teachers who deemed themselves impartial to race because they did not see color. The biases they had against their Black students said otherwise. Worst, the insistence for us, the Black students, to talk about our experience of being treated less-than made me wonder if Black History were a tool to remind Black folks they should feel lucky to no longer be oppressed.
In America my dark skin color opted me into a system that would send me daily notifications; I would never have all the rights of its “other” citizens. In February, it seems that those notifications doubled daily.
The scholar and famed founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson first had the idea of focusing on Black History in 1926 with the hope that someday race relations surpassed the need for such a celebration. When will we reach that point?
This year, I’m celebrating Black History Month through a lens separate from the white gaze. I don’t just focus on the Black History All Stars. Rather, I’m reminded of the people who fought for equality or lost their lives to the system of racism. I’m reminded that though I was born in Haiti, as a naturalized American, I benefit from the struggle and hard work (often paid in blood) by those who came before me.
This year, as I redefine for myself what Black History looks like, I have more questions than answers. I ponder how I can be an agent of change. How do I continue to question the framework in which I operate so that I hold the fewest biases as possible? How am I complicit in a system that’s holding me back? On a daily basis, what steps can I take against the system? How can I create opportunity in my work to mentor and create a pipeline for BIPOCS in the photo industry?
This year, I’m grateful for Black History Month and the lessons it has taught me about how to marry hope and action to ensure a more equitable society for myself, my BIPOC peers and for my own family.