What Black History Said To Me

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 (CAG) to share their perspectives on Black History Month, as Black New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness. In response, Constance D. Woodson wrote this reflection on what Black History means to her. To read another Black History Month submission from a CAG member, visit this page for a poem by M.A. Dennis.

Imagine a 5-year-old child sitting in front of a black-and-white television watching Malcolm X and the founders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, and Huey P. Newton, promoting Black Nationalism, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington for equality for all. The fact that they were brutally attacked and murdered was terrifying and too complex for a young child to understand.

Equally terrifying was watching White nationalist followers of Donald Trump who refused to accept his defeat and incited in real-time an insurrection on the federal government. The angry, blood-thirsty mobs of armed White supremacists spread feces inside the Capitol walls, flailed confederate flags, and carried zip-ties, ending with five people dead including a Capitol police officer. Their attempt to stop the count of electoral votes imitated what followed the Reconstruction Act of 1867.

American history is marked by racial violence and White nationalism. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, stating “that all persons held as slaves within rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free,” applied to only the southern states governed independently from the Union, and left slavery intact in states that were not. Unjustly, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, passed southern legislation, the Black Code (1865-66) – later known as Jim Crow – to contain the behaviors and labor markets of four million newly freed women, men, and children following the Civil War in the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). Reconstruction gave Black men a voice in the government by granting them the right to participate in elections, winning southern state elections and seats in the U.S Congress. Decades later, Ku Klux Klan groups reversed the Reconstruction Act with a violent backlash that restored White supremacy – the echoes of which could be heard during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

“The Father of Black History.”
Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, 1915.

For decades, illiteracy was used as a weapon to suppress Black people as major contributors and registered voters. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History, knew that it could be fatal if young Black people were uneducated about the real history and contributions of their Black ancestors, and he dedicated his career to the field of African-American history.

Woodson’s advocacy for Black education succeeded, and Negro History Week was launched in 1926. February was chosen in honor of Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday month. Fifty years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month.

I for one, have issues with a month-long recognition of only iconic Black inventors and innovators. We too often disregard other Black enslaved and freedmen inventors who made our day-to-day lives easier. Many Black inventors and innovators claimed patents at the turn of the 19th century: Lewis Latimer invented longer-lasting light bulbs, Alexander Miles patented a mechanism (still used today) that automatically opens and closes elevator shafts, Sarah Boone re-designed the ironing board, Garrett Augustus Morgan invented the three-light traffic light, and Frederick McKinley Jones invented refrigerated trucks. These are only a few of the Black inventors who have made daily life easier and safer, but who are not household names. They overcame tremendous barriers and discrimination and deserve recognition.

Looking back on that 5-year-old girl sitting in front of the television, and looking ahead to the events we will undoubtedly watch play out in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency and the insurrection on the Capitol, it is clear that we have as long to go in combatting White supremacy now as we did then. Racial trauma has dogged Black people for over 400 years – from poverty and homelessness, to police brutality and mass incarcerations. People of color have a higher risk of triggers than any other culture. We need to confront our nation’s history and the persistent racism in order to move forward. Racial healing starts with ourselves.

Acceptance Rate For Homeless Families At NYC Shelters Drops To Record Low

Last year, the percentage of New York City families deemed eligible to live in homeless shelters dropped to its lowest point during the de Blasio administration, according to recently released city data.  

The city has always investigated whether families who apply for shelter are truly homeless, and even in normal times they reject a high number of applications. In November of 2014, during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office, the city determined that 50.2% of the families with children that applied were eligible. 

A Poem Reflecting on Black History Month

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.

“After Frederick Douglass”

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 

identity theft.

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 rrealistically

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 

two fish 

can make 5,000 sandwiches.

Inspired by the Frederick Douglass speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

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