As a child, I learned during our shortest month about Martin and Malcolm, Harriet and Sojourner. At home and in school they told of Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs, Madam C.J. Walker’s hair products and subsequent wealth, George Washington Carver’s peanuts, Crispus Attucks’s heroism in dying first, and even what Dr. Ben Carson did with those conjoined twins.
Black History Month has taken these mortals from heroes to idols, out of both pride and desperation. The resulting highlight reel of black triumph is pure historiography, a particular formulation of the story of black America. Its chronology supports the misleading narrative that a few exceptional people and their acts are the de facto history of black America, rendering the stories of the ordinary as invisible.
The extraordinary black person is a character much of America is comfortable confronting — from the superhero to the heroic slave, black girl magic to the trope of the Magical Negro. But what about that black woman on the train whom you find yourself staring at — the one who is not staring back at you, but knows that you’re looking, out of confusion, in awe? She, like the majority of black people, leads a life seldom chronicled.
In 2014, the musician Questlove wrote an essay about this idea of “black cool,” the detached air that draws people nearer, but never close. He refers to a 2012 anthology on the same subject, “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness,” published four years after Ebony magazine released a series of covers about men who personified it, including Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali, Billy Dee Williams and Denzel Washington, Prince and Marvin Gaye and Jay-Z.
In his essay, Questlove describes that black woman on the train, saying she “seems to be doing more than everyone else by doing so much less. Your eye is drawn to her. She acknowledges your presence by ignoring it. She is the personification of cool by annihilating your very existence.”
As Shirley Chisholm, also featured on the Black History Month Greatest Hits Compilation, put it, she was “unbought and unbossed.”
Our country knows how to concern itself with these huge figures in black America — people who are long gone, or alive but well out of reach. This same America, however, has no idea what to do with the average, ordinary black American. It’s those black people many hear about but never see socially, professionally, running errands, relaxing, leading. Or it’s those black people you see but never speak to, because how? Or it’s those black people you speak to, but never actually get to know, because why?
If your life is filled with these ordinary black people, however, you understand what the true meaning of Black History Month is. What truly pushes black America forward are all the people in between, all the people you don’t see if you don’t know where to look, or simply don’t care. But if these circles are part of your life — either through inheritance, or by showing up and seeking them out — your entire world opens up. Every day is overwhelmingly Black History Month, because it’s all around you.
It’s certainly all over the internet. The comedian Nick Fraser, a Vine star turned Instagram personality, drapes himself in luxurious robes, do-rags and furs, posturing as a frivolous, opulent character. While Mr. Fraser is clearly the star, his cinematographer adds frequent commentary, often using a common word with an uncommon charge:
This idea of black cool is a historical marker of black people, but it does not define everyone, the same way this all-star team of black heroes could never represent the genealogy of an entire race.
But “different” — yes, that may be the real thing that binds black people together, from the ones you know to the ones you’ve never seen or heard of. And even though we’re at our loudest in February, we’re here, all of us, all year round.