Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions, achievements, and resilience of Black Americans, and to also reflect on the systemic racism that continues to pervade society. One manifestation of this inequity is that Black people are disproportionately affected by homelessness: Approximately 57 percent of heads of household in NYC shelters are Black. As we wrote in our State of the Homeless 2020 report, “Homelessness is unequivocally a racial justice issue, and is one manifestation of historic and persistent housing discrimination, biased economic and housing policies, extreme income inequality, and disproportionately high levels of poverty among people of color, as well as biased policing and incarceration in communities of color.”
We recently asked some members of our Client Advisory Group to share their perspectives on Black History Month, as Black New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness. In response, M.A. Dennis wrote this powerful poem about history, identity, and the ongoing struggle for justice and equity.
By M.A. Dennis
What to the Slave’s Descendant Is the Month of Black History?
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in R-E-S-P-E-C-T
for the creators of this February celebration,
who were well-intentioned, wanting to give
well-overdue attention to African-American
achievements — countering the bitter, twisted
lies of a whitewashed history; honoring Black
heroes for causing good trouble — But I struggle
during the Month of Black History.
What am I (formerly homeless individual)
to do with your celebration of Black History?
What does February mean to Black people
like me, who have almost no History, who
cannot trace my lineage past my grandparents?
The enslavement of my Ancestors was the ultimate
Our unknown history is the ultimate homelessness:
If we have no history, we have no roots.
If we have no roots, we have no home.
I am Black and I want my History.
In my dreams, I see visions of Oprah:
You get a history! You get a history! You get a history!
I need a history that goes beyond Dr. King,
beyond Malcolm, beyond Tubman and Tupac,
beyond Black-owned businesses
distributing formulaic calendars
during the Month of Black History.
(Those calendar illustrations do come in handy though
for your child’s last-minute Black History Month project.)
Yes! Give Matthew Henson his props — Not for being
the first to reach the North Pole, but for being
the first brother to enjoy working in frigid cold.
On the Pulse of Morning
I will lift up mine eyes unto
The Hill We Climb —despite infallible
military strategy which states: The Hill
provides superior position to the elevated enemy
— not the climber.
Yet, Black people keep climbing.
A monolithic Moses, seeing
the “I Have A Dream” speech Promised Land
but not being allowed to enter it.
This Month of Black History, gives me the joy
of a toddler opening a Happy Meal
and realizing it contains no toy.
Will serious reparations be given
to the illegitimate children of the founding fathers?
I want the compound interest on my mule & 40 acres
to include Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and
Harvard University’s Center for Research
Finding My Roots: African descendant
owed the American Dream as inheritance — Till
this day it remains lost in the Tallahatchie River,
lost in the sauce of transatlantic transactions.
We the lives who are all darker than blue; who
trap demons in blue bottles; who use blue paint
to ward off harmful spirits; who have only spoken
words with severed mother tongue, our oral
tradition passed down by assassinated prophets,
brown Listerine anger swishing in our mouths.
We the People of Color (Purple)
use humor as a coping mechanism:
Have you heard the joke circulating
around the Black people water cooler:
If Black History is the shortest and coldest month,
whose history is March through January?
Is it the history of records
putting pale faces on the covers of albums
sung by dark-skinned voices?
Is it the history of names on the marquee
and their forced entry through rear exits?
Only in America could the talent on stage
not be good enough to sit in the audience.
Only in America do trees — Life-promoting
entities — get noosed in deadly perversion.
Only in America can the sounds of Walt Whitman
be drowned out by broken record death threats
for hammering too many homeruns.
Only in Feb-uary, is there an unnecessary
hard r — realistically
Only in February, is insufficient length
to celebrate; Black History truth
cannot be a 28 to 29-day sojourner.
It’s time to remix
This Month of Blacktasticness
let it last year-round
let it rewrite history
as it should’ve been written in the first place.
This Month, I focus not on the first Black
this or that — But instead, I ponder the last:
Who will be the last Black person murdered
in cold blood, in their driveway, in their bedroom,
in their car, in a holding cell, in a chokehold?
On the concrete sidewalk, on the asphalt street?
During a wellness check or “routine” traffic stop?
Who will be the last of us
subjected to generational spirit-crushing poverty?
Which forces The Souls of Black Folk
to yet again
stretch a meal, so that
five loaves of bread and
can make 5,000 sandwiches.
Inspired by the Frederick Douglass speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”