This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.
— Carter G. Woodson (1933)
The invites always come as the year turns over. Can I speak at this college or that law firm on Black History Month? Even as I accept, a part of me feels unsettled. Because when Black historian Carter G. Woodson proposed a “Negro History Week” in 1926, his intent was not to confine the teaching of Black history to a single week or month, but to transform how American history is taught year-round, to Black and white students alike.
Had Dr. Woodson’s vision been realized in mid-20th century America, perhaps we’d no longer need Black History Month at all. Perhaps if white children were taught about the Southern reign of terror that virtually nullified the Emancipation Proclamation, and the relentless efforts of cities from L.A. to Chicago to Boston to obstruct the progress of Black people fleeing the South, all Americans would have united to defend Black voting rights, reject abusive over-policing, and ensure equal access to education and employment.
Needless to say, this united United States has not yet come to pass. But where America failed to learn and honor Black history, Black families stepped in. When I think of Black history, I think first of my mother and father, who put me on the path to a fulfilling life by ensuring I knew my history. Not the distorted stereotypes forced on me at school and in popular culture, but the truths shared at so many kitchen tables by so many Black elders often bearing the literal scars – and always the psychic pain – of resisting white supremacy and seeking justice.
When I came home crying after my kindergarten teacher scolded me for only drawing Black people in a picture, my mother went to school with me the next day, and told the teacher I was free to draw whatever inspired me. That early lesson in pride and principled defiance allowed me to hold on to my own sense of creativity, which became the foundation of my filmmaking career. My ability to tell stories about Black people in all our richness and complexity began with my mother refusing to let a destructive narrative define me.
My latest film, “All In: The Fight For Democracy,” directed with Liz Garbus, embodies my lifelong relationship with Black history. Not just because it exposes the centuries-long struggle of Black Americans to simply participate in democracy, and passes the torch of Black history to all Americans. But also because as I came to know the film’s central narrator, Stacey Abrams, I saw she was driven by the same force inspiring me: history, as it comes from the Black family. Her parents, like mine, forged a home that buffered our young hearts against racist abuse, and filled our spirits with the fire to shape Black history – and thus American history – with our own deeds.
Stacey’s mother, Reverend Carolyn Abrams, put it like this in an interview for the film: We make our history. History is us. Is that history painful? Undoubtedly so. But Reverend Abrams understands the essential dynamic of engaging with the past to create a new future: We’ve got to work to get out of it, but at the same time that we are extricating ourselves, we are also making history.
The only way to extricate ourselves from a painful history is to look it straight in the eye. In “All In,” Stacey Abrams recounts being voted valedictorian of her high school class, and getting invited to a ceremony for the state’s valedictorians at the Georgia governor’s mansion. As she and her parents approach the mansion’s gates, the officer on duty blocks their path. A Black valedictorian? Surely not. Thanks to her supportive family, Stacey metabolizes this encounter with a hate-filled history into an eventual campaign for that same governor’s mansion, losing only because of election interference by her opponent. Incredibly, she proceeds to mobilize Black, Latinx, Asian, and progressive white voters to turn Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 senatorial run-off.
Stacey will be the first to say she did not defeat Georgia’s systemic voter suppression by herself. Networks of Black people working for decades laid the groundwork for extricating the state from its history of brutal, at times deadly, attacks on Black voters. And the work is not over, as Georgia is already contemplating new laws aimed at stifling the votes of Black and Brown people. And this Black History Month, this particular February, comes on the heels of a January when Nazis and white nationalists were given safe passage to storm our nation’s Capitol, making it absolutely clear that a single month does not suffice.
As Americans, we now must grapple with Black history regardless of our race, unless we are willing to cede democracy to white nationalism, and return to a time of permanent pogrom for Black people, and heedless complicity for whites.
There’s an inspiring moment in “All In” that takes place during Stacey Abrams’s visit to Brown Chapel AME Church on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. As Stacey takes the lectern to speak, she begins by introducing her mother and father. A man on the dais leaps to his feet to applaud, and that man happens to be Joe Biden. When now-President Biden shoots to his feet to honor Reverends Carolyn and Robert Abrams, he is honoring Black history. Not the month, but the totality. The connection to our past, and the unstoppable momentum to extricate ourselves from its perdition. Year-round, together, as Dr. Woodson intended.
Lisa Cortés is a director and producer. She has worked on “All In: The Fight For Democracy,” and produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “The Apollo” for HBO telling the remarkable history of New York’s famed theater. Cortés also served as an executive producer on Lee Daniels’ “Precious.”