Growing up, February came chock full of goodness: Martin Luther King Jr., Shirley Chisholm, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mary McCleod Bethune, Rosa Parks, plus everyone who lived during the Harlem Renaissance. There was so much to cram into 28 (or 29) days, that often, these whole entire lives were reduced to just a couple of paragraphs printed beneath their most iconic, heroic-looking portrait.
Complex humans and their complicated stories reduced to neat and noble little boxes.
Its tidiness notwithstanding, February sure seemed like a disruption— the topic of Black History was dropped as abruptly as we had picked it up, and by March 1, we were back to our “Regularly Scheduled Programming.” Racism was over because we finished the “racism” chapters of those books and put them back on the shelves. Blackness went back to the outer periphery of mainstream culture, and everything was “fine” again.
Even as a child, I knew there was something dishonest about this… those neat boxes were too simple, the “celebration” too easily dismissed. I had questions: How come from March until January, talking about race in mixed company was off the menu? And why was my school’s version of Dr. King so different than the “revolutionary” my dad talked about at home?
And another thing— was I really meant to believe that the struggles of Black folks were a thing of the past, and had no relationship to the present conditions in my community? What didn’t I know that I didn’t know? I was confused, and I knew there was more to the story.
I knew I wasn’t being told the truth.
I suspect that it was because of this early skepticism that I got my first lesson in the power of narrative, and how the stories we tell reinforce our beliefs about people, and the world we live in. That is true of historical narratives. And as a storyteller of invented narratives, I am always seeking out the wholeness, the richness, the hard and the soft, ugly and beautiful within them. Emotional honesty, intellectual honesty: isn’t that what all of us storytellers are after?
For so long, the truth has been excised from Black stories, even carrying over into fictional stories and characters. But more and more, we know that there is more to the story of the Black characters that we invent, and we demand to see and hear it. When a story is told with cultural specificity, we crave more of the truth it brings. And I know they are out there, that we’ve always been creating them, and I rejoice to read the pages of this publication when there are announcements of more in the pipeline. We need the volume and variety to correct the record — created by omission and/or outright deception — on what it means to be Black in America.
The more we uncover the truth, the more questions we raise to better understand the narratives that frame our world. When we hear characters like the one I play on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Maggie Pierce, talk about how the adultification of Black girls makes them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, a few things happen. Some of us will nod our heads in grim affirmation of what we already know to be true, and we will feel seen and heard in that truth.
But others will ask, “How come I wasn’t aware of this?” and “What else didn’t I know?” and they may seek out the answers to those questions.
When we go beyond the surface and seek out the truth, we make better stories. They are more believable, more powerful, and longer-lasting. We can tell the truth as we revisit icons of Black History, just as we can tell the truth through the stories and characters we conjure in the image of real people.
And we must commit to making true stories of American Blackness, it is past and present, part of our “Regularly Scheduled Programming.”
Kelly McCreary stars as Dr. Maggie Pierce on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Most recently, McCreary launched a satirical election podcast titled “Wednesday Morning.” She is also a Board Member for Equal Justice Society and a Celebrity Ambassador for Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote.