Our friend, Hallmark Writer Keion J., wrote about Black History Month for our internal Hallmark creative blog, Vibrant Voices. His words made us laugh and cry and think and hope, so we asked him about sharing it with you. Here it is.
I was around eight years old and my face was mostly cheeks. I wore a crisp white shirt—starched and ironed with sharp creases—paired with black slacks and scuffed-up “church shoes.” I was wearing a too-small kufi: an “African hat” doing its best to fit my head. It was kente cloth, of course. Because how else would it match the sash thrown across my shoulders? Little boys are not good at wearing sashes: Sashes are flappy and flow-y and fly off when you run. But I was determined to suffer through the hat, and determined to hold on to the sash…because I was “on program.”
In this little Louisiana church, it was not uncommon to see bodies shake with Da Spirit. Hands were always reaching to Heaven. Every shout was loud; every prayer was urgent. It was hot like outside. Sometimes the songs sounded like a surprise party, but sometimes they sounded like The Blues. On special occasions, God stopped by, and sometimes He touched people. As my feet dangled from the pew, I would watch grown-ups give themselves over to something bigger until they got to feel God.
There was always a lot going on.
This particular week, we were celebrating Black History Month, so things were a little different. The every-Sunday extra was now elevated to extra and African. This Sunday, the church was packed, pew-to-pew, with beautiful Black women draped in African attire—lavish Crayola-colored fabrics and enormous head-wraps twisted into crowns. There was no such thing as too bright or too bold. It was time to peacock. The men wore regal dashikis, or fancy suits with bold explosions of African flare. Now, finally, the kings and queens had a day.
And the last thing I wanted to do was mess it up. Leading up to Sunday, I had been practicing my speech over and over again. Being on program was a big deal because I would have to walk up to the front of the church and talk on the microphone. I was a quiet kid. Well-behaved. If an adult told me to be quiet, I would sit still like a My Buddy doll. But being on program would drag me out of my shyness and drop me smack-dab in the middle of Black History Live: A Southern Baptist Spectacular! As the program rollicked forward, I continued to get ready—quietly reading over my speech, nervously mouthing it to myself.
See, I had been volunteered to be on program. If given more of an option, I probably would have declined. But at the time I didn’t know the difference between saying no to people and saying no to Jesus.
What I did know about, though, was Black History Month. I’d learned about it from coloring books, TV specials, school lessons, and my grandmother. My grandmother often told me stories of “how they used to do Black people,” while she peeled sweet potatoes or boiled turkey necks. It wasn’t always clear if she was talking about the past or the present because she was usually talking about both.
Her stories made me feel sad and scared, but I liked hearing about what she survived. She had picked cotton. As a girl, she had lost a classmate—a little Black boy who was killed by white people for allegedly whistling at a white girl. (My grandmother still cries for him). As frying pork-chops crackled on the stove, she would tell me not to “have hate in my heart.” She told me I should treat people right no matter the color of their skin, and that I should love, even when it was hard.
My grandmother was at church that Sunday. So was the rest of my family. I wanted to make them all proud, but perhaps, especially her.
It was almost time for me to head to the front of the church and read my speech about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had written the speech myself, but you’d better believe it was Mama-approved. My mother had reviewed it to make sure I didn’t “go up there lookin’ crazy, and make her shame.” There was a script and it was understood that I would be sticking to it. No free-styling.
The Mistress of Ceremony read through the program, telling the congregation what and who to expect. And then I heard my name.
It was my turn. My heart was beating like running feet. My ribs felt empty. I sucked in a deep breath. I was walking to the podium before I realized I was walking to the podium. The microphone was too high; I lowered it to me. The kings and queens were staring. It was the most quiet this church had ever been. Somebody from the usher board offered a pity “Amen,” to warm me up.
And so I read. In a mostly stumble-free performance I read about the amazing-ness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what his sacrifices meant for us all, even kids my age. I quoted from his “I Have A Dream” speech. In Southern Baptist fashion, there were outbursts of “Yes-suh!” and “Talk About It!” and “Hallelujah!” This was going well. I talked about the mountaintop and how Dr. King’s dream was living on. Finally, I had gotten to the end of my pre-written, pre-approved speech…but I still had more to say. I don’t know what it was exactly, but something moved me to keep talking.
So, words kept happening. I went on about the role faith played in moving our people closer towards freedom. I reminded the congregation that even though things were not perfect, God was not finished yet.
There was an eruption of joy; excitement moved through the church. My mother’s face was a mixture of “I’m impressed” and “Oh no this boy didn’t.” She leaned back and smiled at me like, “Check you out!”
After church, my grandmother gobbled me up in a hug. She bragged to choir members, deacons, anybody who would listen: “Did you see my big boy up there?!” I was happy that she was happy. In my mind, acknowledging Black History Month was a way to thank a woman whose blessings had trickled down to me. My life was one of her answered prayers.
That’s still how I look at Black History Month: It’s a Thank You. I celebrate for my parents and my grandparents and all of the Black people who have fought and sacrificed. I celebrate them for creating a blueprint for survival—a blueprint I still follow when I encounter racism in my everyday life.
That Sunday changed me. It’s the earliest memory I have of knowing my voice mattered. Looking back, I guess that Black History Month program did exactly what it was supposed to do: It taught me how to be a little more free.