Reflecting on February Narratives: Valentine's Day and Black History Month

I sometimes find it odd that Valentine’s Day, one of our most popular, commercialized holidays, falls within the same month that has been designated as a time for deep reflection regarding the legacy and contributions of black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. Consequently, I’m making another departure this week from my focus on wayfinding, art and placemaking programs to consider what, if any, connection can be made between these two rather contrary observances. I’ve previously written about black caricature and changing the way we think when it comes to the concept of darkness, particularly as it relates to people. But I would be remiss in not taking the opportunity to also point out that though Black History Month is largely about the contributions of African-Americans, there is an underlying visual element that makes the attention given to these various individuals all the more significant.

It is a matter of historical fact that during slavery and in the aftermath of the Civil War, black Americans were systematically degraded and made to feel inferior. And while most of us would agree that this kind of treatment toward fellow human beings has no part in contemporary culture and society, we must also own the ways in which our views of what we consider beautiful are also shaped by the stereotyping that has been perpetuated in the advertising industry for hundreds of years.

In other words, there is an oddly parallel narrative between Valentine’s Day (that is, a celebration of those we deem worthy of love and attention) and the commemoration of people who at one time were (in some people's minds) the opposite of beautiful or beloved.

Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, MLK, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, among others, were not always given the kind of admiration we easily bestow on them in this day and age. To be told you are nothing or treated as if you are nothing--to be told, effectively, that you are ugly--and yet still rise above unkind words and demeaning imagery is extraordinary. How can the human heart (or spirit) persevere in such circumstances?

The bad news is that negative caricature is still very much with us. One need only preview the documentary “Dark Girls,” which addresses “the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color particularly dark skinned women, outside of and within the Black American culture,” to be reminded how old attitudes continue to permeate contemporary culture.

The good news is that the black people we honor become remarkable examples of beauty and self-love.

Accepting who we are and what we look like can be a challenge; as black and brown men and women in particular, we are told in both overt and covert ways that we are not normal. It is no small feat, then, to learn to love our hair and skin and believe that we have worth when the likenesses being reflected back to us are contemporary versions of old, negative stereotypes: Mammy, coon, pickaninny, brute and tragic mulatto, to name a few. But we look to those who came before us. We see their images and are reminded that we, too, are worthy of love. We, like them, are beautiful.

If we are honest, we might admit to letting Black History Month pass us by without much thought. We may even perceive the month-long designation as nothing more than lip service to make amends for the untold number of atrocities committed against people of color in this country.

However, February carries with it symbolic significance in emphasizing the beauty of brown and black faces in ways that truly honor the humanity of black people. We don’t tend to talk about self-love on Valentine’s Day but given the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the pervasive nature of negative caricatures of African-Americans through advertising and design, this notion of learning to love ourselves seems strangely appropriate.

(On the eve of my 37th birthday, this also serves as a note of appreciation to my family and closest friends for showing me genuine love and affection during the times I could not muster it for myself. Time, too, has helped me find a way to make peace with the part of me that, though accomplished in many ways, struggled at times to believe that the brown skin and kinky hair, which are very much tied to my identity, were beautiful in their own right.)