A sinusoidal world
February 2021 has officially come to its end, and along with it, Black History Month. But that does not mean that the importance of Black history has disappeared. Black history is more than a single month of attention; February simply seeks to highlight what is otherwise overshadowed, rather than attempt to wholly encompass African-American stories and experiences. The significance of Black history comes from the pricelessness of history itself.
There’s a reason humankind is so obsessed with its past. The same way individuals compare themselves to their former selves to learn more about their own character and to ensure that they are improving, humans examine history to glean insights about themselves and to ensure that their species is advancing. For it is the past that leads us from ignorance to truth. Humans need history’s wisdom in order to progress, and, in turn, history needs human curiosity in order to survive.
But more than that, taking a step back to look at the past allows us to see clearly the sinusoidal nature of all things. The world is a complex structure composed of oscillating opposites, full of cycles and revolutions. Civilizations erect and fall, people wake and die, nature rages and slumbers. Nothing but impermanence is permanent. And analyzed holistically, it can feel like there is no purpose to what humans do. No matter how hard we try, the waves will not cease, and we are weak in the face of them. We cannot stop change, we cannot preserve what we create, and we cannot hold on to that which we love.
And yet, humans learn to live and love on. Despite it all, we tether down our fleeting valuables and hold tight. It is the nature of humanity, and of history. We take our ephemeral empires, events, and existences, and tie them down, in effort to give them meaning. It’s indoctrinated in us to believe that nothing has worth unless it is sustained, so we do our best to make our momentary Earthly lives into something lasting, something with meaning.
But that’s just it. Value doesn’t come from preservation. How long something lasts doesn’t define its meaningfulness. Our human lives on Earth aren’t permanent, but that fact does not deprive them of their value. An extremely wise man once said, “Part of the journey is the end” (Tony Stark, Avengers: Endgame). Endings are an inescapable part of life. But the existence of an ending does not strip away the significance of the trip there. We do not live to die, we do not read to finish, and we do not love to break.
It’s the middle part that we care about. The middle part, though loaded with plenty of disappointment, failure, heartbreak, grief, pain, and numbness, is also where we get a taste of enjoyment, laughter, fun, pleasure, satisfaction, and excitement. It’s life that exists in the middle. And the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. To call life the opposite of death would be to give the two things equal mass, when in actuality, birth and death are trivial in comparison to the potential richness and substance of a life. Birth and death are mere conduits; they bow their heads in subservient respect when in life’s presence, allowing it to pass through them.
Our civilizations, our peoples, and our creations will all inevitably fade away, but new ones will always take their place. This is the study of history, and the importance of understanding the cyclical nature of our world. Because what it shows us is that no matter how dark something is, it may get even darker, but there will always be light again. And that’s why we keep going. That’s what gives us hope. History shows us how to hope.
Singing in the dark
And Black history perfectly encapsulates this. African-Americans were forced into one of the darkest places that a person can be in, but through it all, they still sang. They still fought. They still loved. When the universe took light from them, they created it.
My grandparents, Clara and Elvin Simpson, both African-American and ages 74 and 77 respectively, have persevered through many handicaps in order to get to where they are. Today, they are retired and live surrounded by family, with fourteen grandchildren and one great-grandson.
But the path to that point was hardly smooth. Both raised just a few generations out of slavery, they grew up in harsh racial environments and had to leap enormous social and economic hurdles on a day-to-day basis. Despite the arduous trek, they never let go of the love they had for their Black identities. In a recent interview, the pair discussed what Black history means to them and why its month is so important.
For Clara, Black History Month is vital because it helps cast light on overlooked Black achievements. It provides for her a distinct period out of the year to truly appreciate all the sacrifices that paved the way for her life’s journey.
“Why Black history? Because history textbooks neglected the accomplishments of Blacks. Black History Month is important to me because it’s one of the ways that assist with the continual, consistent acknowledgment of contributions and accomplishments made by Black Americans,” Clara said. “It has been and still is a time for me to celebrate and be very thankful for all my ancestor’s challenges in creating this optimistic path of opportunities for me. I feel so happy and proud knowing that they faced, endured, and overcame the challenges of being Black.”
She continued to describe how Black History Month has also been a time of learning and scholarship for her, stating, “I have personally gained knowledge and understanding of my past and present situation during times of specifically studying Black History. I recall using the month of February as a time for me to explore, examine, and analyze the experiences of Black Americans.”
Similarly, for Elvin, Black history is about the honor of those who came before him in the context of the satisfactory life he lives today. “Black history is to me a reflection on the grandeur of my present joy, acknowledging with honor those ancestors who came before me.”
He went on to explain that Black history also revolves around internal and external discovery. “[It] is the opportunity to discover the uniqueness and the diversity of the world’s Black societies and the incomprehensible positive contributions made by our collective experience and presence on this planet. More importantly, Black history means my life is not lived in a vacuum; there is much to be discovered, experienced, learned, and shared. My life is the continuum of those who came before me.”
“In essence,” he summed up, “Black history to me is my quest of self-discovery.”
“In essence, Black history to me is my quest of self-discovery.”– Elvin A. Simpson
Clara and Elvin both expressed an air of eternal gratitude for the impact that their ancestors have had on their lives.
When asked what he would say if he could meet some of his antecedents from the pre-Civil War era, Elvin was full of thank you‘s. “To my great-great-grandfather, Turner R. Simpson, born in Motley, VA in 1828 and his wife, Rhoda Elizabeth Irby Simpson, my great-great-grandmother, I would say, thank you! Thank you Grandpa Turner for registering to vote the first opportunity it was available to you in 1868. Thank you for loving each other…and raising children that were good citizens and Black leaders the first generation out of slavery,” Elvin said. “Thanks for a legacy of faith, hope, love, power, and perseverance!”
Clara’s response paralleled Elvin’s fervor. “I say to my ancestors of the pre-Civil war era, thank you, thank you for my history,” she said. “I am still striving to live up to y’all’s endurance and determination that made me who I am. Thanks for being my heroes and sheroes!”
The respect they hold for their forebears is palpable and evident in the value they place on passing down stories. Clara, as a self-promoted genealogist, dedicates much of her time to independently exploring her family’s history. She describes the research process as meeting her ancestors. “I am so…grateful for the technology today that allows me to meet my ancestors via old newspaper articles, censuses, and vital records,” she said. She makes time to share her many discoveries with her grandchildren, passing the stories of the past into the future.
Elvin echoes the importance of this story-telling. “Stories can be used to inspire each generation to be all one can be. Not just for oneself, but to honor those who came before and to contribute to the greatness, salvation, and well-being of those who follow,” he said. He explains that stories are especially important when considering that “inhuman slavery disrupted Black history.” Through the communication of stories, Black people “continue to rise and rise and rise.”
For the couple, stories are much more than just ways to pass the time. Stories are a way to preserve lives and legacies. They are ladders of encouragement. A way to send pieces of one’s self into the future. By passing on stories, Black people will never forget the sufferings their ancestors had to brave when arriving in America.
But despite America’s history of injustice against the Black community, Elvin and Clara are still able to see the good in the nation.
“I am so grateful to be an American. The freedom, the opportunity, the system of democracy that is flawed but provides a kind of humanity not found in many other countries,” Clara said, listing the attributes she values. She continued, explaining how even though her country deals with racism, it is a battle she’s prepared to fight. “I am challenged to be the difference in overcoming the actions and consequences of racist attitudes and bigots,” she said. “My ancestors did, and are the difference for me.”
“I am challenged to be the difference in overcoming the actions and consequences of racist attitudes and bigots.”– Clara Simpson
Elvin sees the handprints of Black people slathered all over the country. In response to what he values about America, he answered, “the richness of Black accomplishments, contributions, spirit, and success.” He continued, stating, “America’s possibilities are the essence of its value.” He explained that “its inhumanity to Black folk…is even to be valued, even in the midst of America’s great failings,” because despite the country’s biggest mistakes, it is on a “quest for perfection.”
While America chugs along on its rocky voyage to perfection, each day Clara and Elvin’s love for being Black strengthens.
“The significance of my being Black is being renewed everyday!” Elvin said. “The impact of my Blackness is positively profound, ever expanding, and cannot be expressed in quantitative or qualitative terms.”
“I love being Black,” Clara stated simply. “The color of my skin and culture is challenging mentally and physically, but my ancestors…loved themselves and navigated through their slave narratives without feeling gloom…but rather optimism for future coming generations. I love being Black—my lips, my curves, my speech, my way of culturally communicating in a language uniquely mysterious, my rise from the ashes of unnecessary and cruel oppression…” She voiced her Blackness as future-oriented and “swaying forward.”
Elvin’s reply likewise illustrated his appreciation for his Blackness. “What I like most about being Black is that it is the depository and vessel that God gave me to experience the richness of the joys of life, and [the vessel] with which to receive His presence.”
Though both of them identify strongly with being Black, Clara added the one thing she didn’t like about her ethnicity. “I dislike having to live by the double standards of survival imposed on me because of the color of my skin,” she said.
For both, faith plays an enormous role in their identities as well.
“In essence, faith is my Black identity,” Elvin said. “Faith is given by God. Faith is the precursor to hope. Hope defines my present state of mind. My present state of mind is continual, sustainable joy. Joy is my strength.”
He continued, explaining, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God. With faith, all good things are made possible. All things work together for good for those who love God…With faith, contentment becomes possible in all life circumstances.”
Clara illustrated similar passion when describing her faith. “I have a childlike faith that allows me to believe in the folks who influenced and guided me into adulthood. I am loved and disciplined and encouraged to use my voice, personality, and other personal gifts from God to be the difference in the world of my influence.”
Elvin elaborated on the connection between his hope and his joy, stating, “My present joy is defined by my hope. Hope preconditions our present condition.” Quoting Luke 12:34 of the Bible, he stated, “‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,'” connecting one’s treasure to one’s hope and one’s heart to one’s current state of mind.
“Hope preconditions our present condition.”– Elvin A. Simpson
“Life consists of more than physical possessions, or emotional, physical, and social pleasures. Everything in this life, except the spiritual realm, is subject to decay, disappointment, failure, rot, et cetera. The stuff of life is transient,” Elvin said. “Those without hope beyond this life live subject to persistent anxiety, distress, stress, and uncertainty…Our brains are hardwired to lack hope. The joy that hope provides, therefore, is elusive. It must be received, not pursued.”
For Elvin, hope and faith are inextricable. “By definition, hope requires faith.” He referenced Romans 8:24 of the Bible, reciting, “‘Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?'”
The words of Clara and Elvin on their faith and hope ring with truth. In order to hope, one must also have faith and trust. One must trust in the high probability that their situation will get better in order to have hope for the future. And this likelihood is evident when we examine history. For the Black community, hearing about their history is a source of comfort and inspiration, especially when treading through turbulent waters.
Clara emphasizes this, stating, “The encouragement I experience comes from knowing my history. So the month of acknowledging the contributions of folks like me is a very powerful image for me.”
“My entire life, my accomplishments, my being, my good deeds, my family foundation, my Blackness is wrapped up in hope. My present joy is wrapped up in hope. The hope of the glorious return of my Savior, Jesus Christ,” Elvin said. “It does not yet appear what I will be, but I know when Christ appears I will be just like him. This is my hope in my present glorious Blackness!”
When facing off with racism, sometimes hope is the only weapon one can wield.
“I am so confident in my ability to be the best person I can be in the face of racism,” Clara said firmly.
“I am so confident in my ability to be the best person I can be in the face of racism.”– Clara Simpson
And in the chemical reaction between history and humanity, hope is the precipitate. It is the solid rock on which to hold tight, the firm and sturdy assurance that things can and will get better.
Black History Month may have reached its conclusion for 2021, but the importance of its message and the value of Black stories do not have conclusions. For as long as humankind persists, so will its history. And that means so will Black history. Black history will continue to fuel generations and generations to come, providing for them the courage to look up. To breathe. To take the next step. Because Black history is about finding the strength to move forward. Because Black history is hope.