A Tribute to Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, I sat down with my dear friend, Robert Phillips, to discuss how we can create intentional space in our lives to celebrate and partake in black history.

One thing we both agreed on is that celebrating black people and black achievement shouldn’t be confined to one month out of the year, rather we should create intentional pockets of time and space year-round to do this. Out of an organic conversation around the question, “How do you celebrate Black History?”, came the following conversation. I hope you’ll read through it and find inspiration in your own life to celebrate and honor black lives.

Please note: The italicized writing in Robert’s responses are my thoughts and where I interject (which naturally created side bar conversations IRL)….next time this will most definitely be a podcast 😉

Leah: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Robert: It’s powerful. It’s life-giving. In September of 2020 I got a tattoo of a Sankofa on my leg. It is a Ghanaian concept which means “you can’t go forward without looking back.” It’s symbolized by a bird whose body is walking forward and its head is turned around picking up an egg. The egg represents your ancestors or anything that in a sense, is “behind” you – history, wisdom, knowledge. The Sankofa is literally me. There would be no me without my mom and my dad. There would be no me without their wisdom and knowledge. And the same goes for my grandmother and the people before her. And they’re all black. So to me, black history is important because it has shaped me. My mom and dad did certain things and went through certain things so that I would not have to deal with those same scenarios. Rosa Parks did something at a certain point in time so that I wouldn’t have to do it. These people went in front of me and literally laid their lives on the line so that I would not have to.

So for me to be here is precious in and of itself. I am grateful to be here today. We are survivors. We are powerful. We are mystical. We are unique. We are exotic. We are all those things that make us a beautiful people, so black history to me…there’s nothing without it. It brings me joy.

Leah: How can we celebrate Black History Month?

Robert: Everyone has a different way of celebrating depending on their season of life. You can learn more about historical black figures or events, support black businesses, or even just ask questions. If you love to read fiction, pick up a book by a black author to gain a different perspective. Or watch a television show with all or mostly black characters. Think about what you currently partake in – do you like chocolate? coffee? beer? Find the black people in your community that are creating these things and purchase from them. There are ways that you can take your current life and incorporate people of color (specifically black people) during this season and make it a potential year-long thing by supporting these businesses.

Most importantly though: BE INTENTIONAL about honoring the month. It doesn’t have to be this big public service announcement. It’s a time to reflect on what you can do to BE BETTER. It’s a month that’s been set aside to celebrate black history and it’s an opportunity to do a little more and we should take advantage of it.

For example, last year I did a deep dive into Malcom X. I had this image of him that was boisterous, unfavorable, and really that he was an opposing voice to Martin Luther King Jr. Through reading and different media, I found more truths about Malcom X – how peaceful he actually was and I learned about his journey to Mecca and his conversion to the Muslim faith. I think people know he is important, but they also think that he did some crazy stuff. The Malcom X that we know (thanks to the narrative of our culture) is combative and opposing, but the more I uncovered I realized that he was actually very peaceful. He was just not quiet when it came to injustice or when it came to people being hurt and killed. And I just love that. I didn’t understand the extent of his impact and that he was really a good person. So last year for me, celebrating black history month was about me celebrating Malcom X and his life.

Leah: What black owned businesses are your favorite to support?

Robert: There’s so many!

  • Bold + Gritty Coffee. The creator is from Grand Rapids and a friend of mine who now lives in New York (and the company is based out of NY). You can purchase online, but it’s also sold at the South East Market (which sources their products first from black, brown, indigenous, local or womxn-led farms and businesses) for those local to west Michigan.
  • Sola in the City Candles. Sola is my friend, my sister. She typically does two to three launches a year and has the most amazing scented candles (I can vouch for this! Sola’s candles are ah-mazing.)
  • Food (for those in the Grand Rapids area): Jamaican Daves for Jamaican food. And I love Daddy Pete’s BBQ. What’s great about these food places is that you can eat and celebrate black history year-round by being a patron of a black owned restaurant because it’s FOOD! And who doesn’t love food? GR Noir is another great food and wine experience.
  • I make my own Body Butters (stay tuned for the launch!) and I use oils from Smell Goods Cafe, a black owned essential oil shop, for the scents in all of my butters.

Leah: Any movie or show recommendations?

Robert: I would encourage people that when it comes to TV, although movies like 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma…all of which are important to watch at some point in time…it’s essential to know that that’s not all of who we are; plus those movies are hard. The priority should be to watch movies and shows that put black people in the main character roles. Good entertainment from the black perspective that I like includes Lovecraft Country on HBO. Talk about taking the black experience and making sci-fi out of it – it’s so phenomenal! Grand Crew on NBC – written and produced by Phil Augusta Jackson – is another great one too.

Leah: What parting wisdom can you leave us? What is something you want us to know?

Robert: Step outside of yourselves, but also make what you step outside of a part of who you are. So often, things like this become a trend or a fad for a season. Black history shouldn’t be a fad; it should be a way of life. And it IS a way of life. Black history is a part of the world’s history. So, step outside of what you know as history, learn more, and make those learnings a part of your history.

I am by no means an expert on this subject matter and like you, I am learning as I go. For so long, I was paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, or saying the wrong thing, or offending someone – so much so that I didn’t do anything. However, as I make my journey through the work (of white allyship), I am led by this quote from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was one of the millions who suffered and perished behind the walls of a Nazi concentration camp:

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

– Dietrich bonhoeffer –

If anything, I hope you rise to the challenge and commit to learning and creating intentionality behind celebrating black history. Whether it’s through reading, watching shows and movies, supporting a black owned business, or listening to someone’s story, let’s make this Black History Month one that really counts and carries on throughout the entire year. Let me know in the comments section below how you plan to celebrate.

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