Cole Arthur Riley is the author of “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us” and the creator of the contemplative project Black Liturgies.
I’m not alone. Every year, what is intended to be a time of remembrance and storytelling becomes a month of additional labor — usually with very little notice — for Black people. It becomes a season when we must sell our stories and ideas to sate the appetites of White folk who want to feel as though they’ve done the right thing.
For 28 days, every Black person in America is expected to shape-shift into a historian. We ask this of no other race.
Whiteness is permitted the freedom to explore (or neglect) its history on its own terms, spreading the practice out lavishly throughout the year, without deadline or expectation. Black people are expected, in just four weeks, to do everything we can to preserve our stories and take up the space we are often denied.
A friend of mine waited until January to do all his pitching to big publications in hopes that, looking toward Black History Month, editors would open a door that would otherwise remain shut to outsiders. Often, we’re asked to do such labor for little or no pay, in exchange for what we hope will be career capital down the road. That is: A month meant to celebrate Black liberation winds up being a new form of indentured servitude.
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It’s worth noting that I am not exempt from this machine. I wrote this piece during Black History Month and submitted it, unsolicited, to The Post (and yes, I’m getting paid). I won’t be blamed for taking advantage of the system. But I won’t be held captive to it.
A year and a half ago, I created and began to write for what I called Black Liturgies. The project — which connects Black thought, art, emotion and embodiment to a liberating spirituality — has 150,000 followers on Instagram. When Feb. 1 came around this year and I’d made no mention of Black History Month, the direct messages began to trickle in: Will you be doing a series for BHM? … I see you haven’t posted anything related to BHM … Against it? I probably don’t need to tell you that these messages were from White people.
To pass on and inherit our stories can be beautiful, but when we are expected to teach the outsider — to convince the outsider of our intellect, our contribution — Black History Month becomes less a tradition of memory and inheritance, and much more a path to exhaustion under the relentless weight of what Toni Morrison called the “White gaze.” “Black excellence,” at its worst, can devolve into the mere act of proving that Black people are capable of the excellent. Or worse still, of proving that Black people are human at all.
Because of what White capitalism has done to us, it requires great strength to resist the gaze of Whiteness. Because (1) the White gaze pays; and (2) White affirmation goes viral.
A Black History Month TikTok video clocks 1.4 million views. Its premise: “White people did not invent that” — from a well-intentioned White woman who (like many others) seems incapable of decentering her Whiteness even for a month. One must ask, why not make a video called “Things invented by Black people”?
Part of the exhaustion of Black History Month is the White leech on Black History Month. The White gaze is never only gazing. In fact, it cannot bear to silence itself or its demands.
Tricia Hersey, an activist and artist best known for founding the Nap Ministry — an organization that uses rest as a framework for liberation — is one of the many Black voices who this year rose above the demand. As Black History Month began, she wrote simply to her social media followers, “We won’t be doing anything specific for Black History Month on our platforms.” And then: “The genius of Black culture is all around. Open your eyes. Plus, we not doing more for these platforms. We doing less. We slowing down. We resting. To thrive as a Black person in this wicked land is breathtaking. It is history.”
I’m too tired to be a historian in this season. To be clear, I want to remember our history — and remember well. But to honor Black history I must extricate myself from the demands and temptations of the White gaze. I owe this to myself, to Morrison, to the Black women who made history and those who did nothing but lie down and breathe. After all, rest is how memory is stored.