i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother's itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.
- Lucille Clifton
It has been said that history is made in four ways. “First, by those who participate in the event. Second, by those who observe the event and will pass their version on by word of mouth, embellishing, forgetting or adjusting as the circumstances demand. Third, by the professional observer who writes and whose accounts end up in a chronicle in the library. And fourth, by those who do not write.”
When I think about Black History Month, I’m reminded of so many things. Considering all the different ways in which to look at history, I think of how it has always represented a celebration and recognition of those who came before me. Those who died in the Middle Passage and those who made it to the shores of the US. All the way to those who led huge movements seeking justice to right the wrongs in society. Indeed, honoring those who paid the price with their lives for me to be here. Remembering just how blessed and privileged I am to be in the position where I can pursue my dreams. Also, recognizing that generations of my family are descended from those who survived.
The first word that comes to mind is legacy. I’ve had the great privilege of being introduced to a barrage of prominent Black artists because of my father, the late Dr. Floyd Gaffney. Whether I met these artists in person or not, each has left an indelible mark on my soul and spirit. Black people have a rich, cultural heritage that deserves to be further acknowledged. It’s time we are felt, heard and seen everyday.
History also reminds me of the time I found myself sitting on the floor staring into the big, bright eyes of James Baldwin seated on the couch watching as he sipped his glass of Scotch gingerly while talking to my father across the room with my mother busy frying chicken in the kitchen; or when I danced the guaguancó on stage with my master teacher, Juan Carlos Blanco, in honor of my father’s passing; or the time a white boy in my sixth grade class passed me a hand-drawn picture of a black person as an African with exaggerated full lips and the words “bongo” written so easily on the page. I remember dressing up in my robe-like costume from Halloween, and taking all my baby dolls - black and white - downstairs to the family room to have ‘church’ as I sang the words to “Gotta Keep Movin’” from the musical Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope; or when I performed devised theatre pieces for my graduate thesis exploring race based on the racist propaganda promoted in the silent film Birth of a Nation; or the countless times I stood at the top of the stairs looking at the framed poster of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize winning play, No Place To Be Somebody by Charles Gordone, and wondered what it all meant.
What does it all mean? It’s so ironic because all of these experiences greatly remind me of my blackness. Whether the memories were good or bad, I have always been aware of being black, which carries with it a loaded history.
There are many important accomplishments and discoveries that African American have contributed to this world, and yet many do not know it. Having only one month out of the year to celebrate Black history is not enough, it’s infuriating. I feel like I don’t have enough room to express what it really means to me. I feel like I’m rarely given enough space to exist in this world; to voice my opinion; to take up space in the room and just be, without it being political. However, it is political to be a person of color. I shouldn’t be limited to this conversation in the month of February alone. I keep asking myself - Why do we wait to have these conversations? Why are we wasting time? Why is it my responsibility to come up with solutions to these problems? I don’t like being “…accused of tending to the past/as if I made it/as if I sculpted it/with my own hands.” Because as the poem by Lucille Clifton says, “I did not/this past was waiting for me/when I came…”
Black History Month in 2021 is the year of reckoning. This coming May 25 will mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. If we are to avoid repeating history, we must learn from the success and failures of the past in order to not repeat the mistakes. Having the perspective of the past offers us the chance to make new choices and decisions as we move forward. It may sound simple, but the complex racial history in this country warrants fervent action. Dismantling systems of oppression, racial prejudice and violence is exhausting work, but necessary. Not enough has changed since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, and white institutions need to be held accountable if the real work is to be done. Real work is needed on the part of white people to foster change. Baldwin once said, “It is entirely up to the American people – whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long.” White people need to learn more black history and culture, so they’re not so afraid of what they don’t understand. Fear must be starved to death, so new strategies and ideas can be born. Power must be shared.
Since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., black leadership in this country has not been consistent. While there have been some incredible leaders, there hasn’t been any one leader at the helm. However, with movements like BLM, the Anti-black movement and others, I do have some hope. As history continues to evolve, we must learn to heal from our history. We must do better. I agree with author, Rachel Ricketts, who explains how racial justice work is grief work and how it requires the surfacing and confrontation of inherited traumas. Many black people suffer from the inherited trauma of slavery in this country, and it must be handled with care. Grief work requires a person to accept the reality of a situation, then find a way to process that pain and make adjustments. Moving forward is challenging, but necessary. Again, it is time for a reckoning.
Monique Gaffney is a San Diego-based AEA, SAG-AFTRA actor, dancer, and playwright with an MFA from Columbia University.
In Loving Memory of Dr. Floyd Gaffney