Black History Month, pioneered by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926, has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. When you grow up in a Black church, and in other Black cultural institutions, there is often a Black History Month-themed program that the children participate in, and we all sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem.
As I got older, I realized that these moments — little kids shuffling to the front of a stage to take their turn at a microphone to recite a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks or Langston Hughes, and the older adults watching with tears in their eyes and pride in their hearts — helped to form a foundation of knowledge about who I am, and who I dreamed I could be in the world.
Black History Month became a life calling for me as I went on to major in African American Studies at Stanford University. I took to heart two of the bedrock adages of Black History Month: “Each one teach one” and “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
As a student at Stanford, I was in consistent and absolute wonder at all the ways I could study and learn about the experience of African people in this country. I studied African American Vernacular English with Prof. John Rickford and was forever changed and empowered by the ingenuity of Black African people who had been taken from their home and developed an entire way of expressing themselves that was a blend of several West African dialects and also a reflection of their striving and need to be free. Prof. Harry Elam took us through the world of Black theater and how playwrights were using their words to describe the psychic and collective memory of Black peoples.
Black History Month became, for me, a way of deeply and profoundly engaging in the world around me. Using the lens of the African diaspora, I found out more about my history and culture. It also opened up so much to me about humanity — the very essence of, the question of, what it means to be human. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be free?
Ryan Michelle Bathé stars in the new NBC thriller “The Endgame,” which premieres Feb. 21. The actor and producer is best known for “First Wives Club,” “All Rise,” “Sylvie’s Love” and “This Is Us.”
Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.