I grew up in a small town in rural southwest Georgia, where there was an even demographic divide by color. Race relations were pretty decent, for the most part. However, one of the most interesting things I noticed growing up, although I went to great public schools, was that we did not have a Black History Month curriculum.
Given the fact that I was in rural Georgia, and what we’re seeing today with the controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory, this does not come as a surprise. Thankfully, I was a great listener and intellectually curious, so I learned plenty outside of the classroom that shaped what I believe it means to be a Black American.
I grew up among cultural giants in the early and mid-2000s, in my own family and also in the media. I remember being in 10th grade when then-senator Barack Obama was running for election. I was taking a civics and government class at the time. My teacher, Mrs. Barwick, asked us to think for ourselves and decide if we were Democrats or Republicans, and to sit on different sides of the room according to party. There were only a half-dozen Democrats and about 15 Republicans.
Over the course of that class, I watched as Obama soared into the Oval Office with class and respectability, defeating his opponent, Senator John McCain. I truly saw myself in President Obama, and knew then that the impossible could be done. With a vision of hope and a story of true struggle, Obama showed America that despite a country and the historical odds against you, even a Black man can be elected to the White House.
I also have multiple members of my own family that shined. From my paternal grandfather and grandma, Black pastors who had to overcome so much in the South, to my cousin who lived to be 105 years old—the sweetest and sharpest woman you could ever meet. It was incredible being part of a family of true Black excellence. As my dad will still say: “I never really have to look outside of my family to see greatness.”
My family has endured so much, and the values that were instilled into me showed me what I was capable of. It made me who I am today.
Moreover, Black history shows America what overcoming real struggle truly is. From the moment my ancestors landed on this stolen land, it has been a fight for the simplest things. Freedom, voting rights, and even having a voice in electoral politics, to name just a few.
My grandfather, Sylvester Williams, was drafted into the Korean War. During his time in the Army, he was awarded a Purple Heart as well as a Bronze Star of Valor—and was still unable to vote in the Jim Crow South. Despite this, he decided to become a pastor and also run for county commissioner.
Upon election, local White officials immediately reminded him at meetings “who he was”, by calling him a “nigger”.
As we look back at the moments in history from slavery, to the New Jim Crow with mass incarceration, to police brutality, I see so much hurt, pain, and suffering. But above it all, I see forgiveness, perseverance, and excellence in every field.
Even as we continue to push for voting rights, and a liberation whose impact our white peers often cannot see on our level, we must continue to fight for ourselves and move forward. With hope in our hearts from the hymns in our church hymnals, to our protests in the streets for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, we move forward. As we continue to make history in our country with luminaries like Kamala Harris, Beyoncé, Lloyd Austin III, Ursula Burns, Megan Thee Stallion, and Simone Biles, we move forward.
We do all this with our heads held high—knowing, as we say in our community, “we have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.”
Two weekends ago, I went to a Mass in New York City wherein we welcomed the first-ever African-American cardinal, Wilton Gregory of Washington. During his homily, he stated:
“Black History Month is an opportunity for our entire country to recognize the blessings that people of color have offered and continually impart to these United States… We are a gift to this country.”
So as we wrap up Black History Month, I feel renewed and enlightened, despite the continuous struggles we still face today. We are still marching on and will continue to do so. We are about to see the confirmation hearings of America’s first Black female nominee to the Supreme Court, Kentanji Brown Jackson. We currently see repeated attacks in Georgia concerning voting rights.
That same state was, however, flipped in 2021 by Senator Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church. The message is consistent: God will not ever leave us, and we will continue to prosper no matter the challenge of the decade or century.
Nina Simone once stated the following in an interview:
“To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world: Black people… and I mean that in every sense.”
I couldn’t agree more, and as a Black man in a new era, I ask myself every day: What am I to be in my time on this earth? Dr. Maya Angelou sums it up perfectly:
“I want to be representative of my race—the human race. I have a chance to show how kind we can be, how intelligent and generous we can be.”
Here’s to doing that not only during this Black History Month, but every second and every day of our lives.
Tevin Williams is a young Black Catholic who resides in New York City. His writing focuses on his own lived experiences and his perspective as a recent convert to Catholicism.