February is Black History Month, where we honor the extraordinary contributions Black Americans have made to this country and remember that Black history is American history. Throughout the next month, Very Good Light will be sharing a series of stories that aim to put a spotlight on the Black American experience. From young Black activists fighting for equality to artists and creators rewriting their narrative in America’s history books, we’re telling the stories that showcase Black excellence. This month, and every month after, we must continue to stand with Black Americans and fight for justice and equality for all.
There is no American history without Black history.
This year, Black History Month is especially significant, as our country stands within a time that holds great opportunity and power for change and justice. Change and justice that Black Americans have been asking of us for hundreds of years.
Based on the events and occurrences of 2020, it is even more crucial that Americans learn the Black history of the past to better understand what still needs to be done in the present and the future. Gen Z Black activists have proven that they have a powerful hand in the history that is being made every day.
To celebrate, reflect and highlight their powerful work in activism for Black justice, I sat down with four Gen Z activists that have been especially influential this year.
James Kweisi, 23-years-old from Los Angeles, CA
James Kweisi is a 23-year-old dancer, singer, actor, social media presence, and activist. He is the founder of Black Future Project, a BIPOC and Gen-Z/Millennial-led activist group, passionate about empowering Black Youth and Black communities through arts and education.
“Black History Month means a time of reflection for the whole entire world,” says James. “It’s a time to force our history into the conversations and households of people.”
James emphasized that Black people have been on the front lines of the liberation of America. Not just for Black people, but also for the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and those who immigrated into the United States.
“Anything in America, it derives from Blackness,” says James.
2020 was an exhausting year, but one that brought profound change. A positive outcome, James noted, was that many Americans abolished ignorance, and so many people unified together for change. He emphasized that although there has been significant political and legislative progress, policy and action must follow.
To continue what still needs to be done, James believes that qualified immunity needs to be dismantled nationwide in regard to police union protection. He believes that there must be legal accountability for killing Black people. The talk of reallocating funds needs to be brought into action. Transitional opportunities must be brought to Black youth and to college workspaces.
When I asked James how Americans can best celebrate Black History Month, he asks us to spend some time every day researching, love up on our Black friends, continue to work on abolishing ignorance, and start conversations in our households about the Black experience.
“Time and time again, for years and years, we have been so suppressed, alienated, and pushed down. It’s time to lift us up,” says James.
Jess Guilbeaux, 25-years-old from Philadelphia, PA
Jess Guilbeaux started her journey as an activist when she gained a social media following after her debut on “Queer Eye,” the Netflix series about emotionally charged life makeovers by the “Fab Five.” Jess made history as the first lesbian to appear on the show and shared her story about her adoptive parents disowning her at 16-years-old after coming out.
“I’ve been working hard through therapy to find the words to continue telling my story,” says Jess. “Activism has many faces and I tend to focus on storytelling. Talking about my Black and queer experiences is the most powerful way for me to encourage people to get and stay active.”
Jess explains Black History Month as a month for educating and growing, a month where we can elevate and celebrate Black voices, and a month where we can acknowledge our growth as a whole on racial issues while holding each other accountable to do even more.
“Most importantly, Black History Month reminds us that Black lives should be valued and celebrated every month,” says Jess.
The activist encourages her peers to educate themselves and support Black authors, fundraisers, and businesses.
“The very groundwork of this country is built on anti-Blackness amongst other things,” says Jess. “Black people are told directly and indirectly every day that they do not matter. Celebrating, uplifting, cherishing, and listening to Blackness is the only way to BEGIN reversing that.”
As for her hopes for America, Jess stresses the importance of listening and taking action.
“We need more Black voices everywhere and we need folks to shut up and listen.”
Sophie Ming, 19-years-old from New York, NY
Sophie Ming is a college student, model, and activist from New York City. She studies biology while simultaneously gathering her peers to rally for justice and has organized large protests around the Black Lives Matter movement. Sophie is also the founder of New York City Youth Collective, an organization that focuses on educating youth on issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sophie said that learning and talking about her racial identity didn’t feel like a choice, but more like a relief from all of the inner confusion that she felt while growing up with white peers. To her, activism was inevitable. And it is important that Blackness is celebrated so that little Black girls and little Black boys don’t have to first unlearn self-hatred before learning self-love.
“Being Black means you don’t actually have a choice as to whether or not racism affects you,” says Sophie.
She wants her peers to know that what is going on in Black history right now is absolutely not a trend, nor should it be treated like one. The support and protection Black people need today will eventually become history in 20 years – specifically, support in dismantling the systems that target Black communities in the first place. Black support must no longer stop at a hashtag.
“Black History Month to me is the one month out of the year where I’m 110% unapologetically Black, versus the remaining 11 months of the year where I’m only 100% unapologetically Black,” says Sophie.
She emphasizes that if you are white and not willing to be an ally 12 months out of the year, you should not be one at all.
“What I want my white peers to know about Black history is that they should be learning, educating, and participating in movements for Blackness as long as Black people are Black, which is every month,” says Sophie.
Anya Dillard, 17-years-old from West Orange, NJ
Anya Dillard is a 17-year-old activist, philanthropist, performing artist, entrepreneur, content creator, and aspiring filmmaker. She is also the Founder of The Next Gen Come Up, an organization dedicated to encouraging youth activism and community service through media and creativity. She is extremely passionate about giving back to her community, her education, and fighting for diversity within the political and social sphere.
Anya grew up heavily immersed in her education and is extraordinarily proficient in STEM. She found her passion for social advocacy and political justice once she recognized that she was rarely surrounded by students that looked like her.
Anya admitted that for a long time, she was averse to the idea of Black History Month. She felt that it minimized the accomplishments of Black people, and was a way of society telling us that our history wasn’t worth teaching all year-round. She had always believed that Black history is American history, and as such should be taught just as often.
“I’ve grown to understand that there are many communities across the nation that, if not for Black History Month, would not learn much about black history at all,” Anya said.
For her, celebrating Black History Month exemplifies how much Black resilience has achieved without diminishing the fact that as a whole, America still has a long way to go.
“Our Blackness is a diamond that has been dragged through the mud, mountains, lava, and rain and has yet to show a single scratch,” says Anya. “Our blackness is resilient and deserves to be honored for its power and uniqueness. As big of a social construct as race is, our Blackness is what unites us. It connects our experiences, our fears, our traumas. We all have a different ‘Black experience,’ but alas, it is all a part of one interconnected Black experience”
Anya hopes that this month’s celebration inspires people of other races to further educate themselves about Black history. She hopes it brings them to read about Black inventors, revolutionaries, scientists, and entertainers that paved the way for the people they are huge fans of today. She believes that people of all races should enter every Black History Month with curiosity and a sense of wonder about how the Black community has contributed to the evolution and growth of our dynamic society.
“I hope that my peers view Black History Month as an ode to being unapologetically black,” Anya said.