Black History Month gives us an opportunity to be intentional about recognizing African Americans and the role they have played in shaping our country, our communities, and our culture. It’s often a moment for us to lift up “historical figures”—men, women, and people of accomplishment who have made significant impact in an area of endeavor. In this view, PSAs, news pieces, and blogs (not unlike this one) cover people such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, or George Washington Carver. It is certainly important to honor their work, and we have proudly put their wisdom forward as a north star to guide our work. But we’ve also seen how history lifts these people up at the expense of others whose stories are just as central to our trajectory as a country. Whether it’s Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” or the reminder that “history is written by the victors,” often attributed to Winston Churchill, we learn that the received narrative of history is just that: “received” by its audience from institutions and individuals whose intent and interests aren’t always in alignment with our own.
But what does this mean for us now as we think about Black History Month in this moment in time? As a coalition whose mission is to advocate for policies and programs that improve aging in our communities as racially and ethnically diverse people, as American Indians and Alaska Natives, and as LGBT people, the Diverse Elders Coalition rightly puts a focus on African American older adults and their communities this month (and throughout the year). At the same time, our focus on making improvements in the lives of the constituencies we serve puts a premium on what is happening in people’s lives in concrete terms.
So for us then as a coalition, the real stories of people’s lives and how they’re lived over years are more important than a list of “who’s who,” an often incomplete and contested list of people that may not be entirely helpful in addressing the material needs that people have today. As a coalition, we believe that these real stories put a human face on the conditions that we seek to change and that while policymakers can hide behind strategically framed statistics, they cannot deny the humanity of someone’s direct experience.
Because the elders our member groups serve have lived through the “historic events” that we credit with the Civil Rights movement and other movements for social change, we stand for their wisdom as the benchmark by which we measure how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go. We stand for our friends and colleagues such as Earl Fowlkes at the Center for Black Equity, Dr. Imani Woody at Mary’s House, Herbie Taylor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Cynthia Diao at SAGE, whose work guides our advocacy for elders of color. We stand for our partners such as the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging and their important work to lift up the voices of Black elders in the corridors of power. And we stand for the important intergenerational conversations happening in the African American community between young Black Lives Matter activists and elders who lived through and fought in the Civil Rights Movement.
There is perhaps no more important time to stand for these things. If politics is the history of now, elected officials and candidates who are vying for the power to write the first draft of history must be accountable to the real people whose stories we tell and to the change we fight for in the communities we serve.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.