Celebrating Black History Month as an Invitation to Imagine
A Letter From the Executive Director
GABRIELLE LYON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF ILLINOIS HUMANITIES
Read Time 3 minutes
February 1, 2023
If you happened to be watching CBS2 on the morning of February 7th, you might have caught a special Black History Month segment featuring Illinois Humanities Road Scholar Karen Anderson talking about an issue that has impacted Black Americans for centuries: beauty standards. They have been used to reinforce racism but have also served as a tool for empowerment and self-definition for Black women who have defied, defined- and continued to redefine – definitions of beauty.
February is Black History Month. One of the great privileges of being part of Illinois Humanities is that we get to be with people who bring the intent of Black History Month alive all year long through the Road Scholars Speaker Bureau.
Our Speakers share urgent stories and histories that range from the hidden messages of Negro spirituals, to Native American storytelling, and the legacies of rural music.
Karen, like her fellow Road Scholars, does something crucial when she brings history to life in the way she does: she quilts connections amongst what seem like disparate pieces: fashion, narrative, power, racism, law, identity.
Perhaps most powerfully of all, Karen asks us to use our imaginations and define beauty for ourselves.
The cultural critic (and Illinoisian) Margo Jefferson wrote, “history cannot exist without the discipline of imagination.” This is why participating in the humanities is imperative at a time when teaching about the history, contributions, and experiences of African Americans in the United States is being censored. Coming together through the humanities (continuing in the words of Jefferson), “can heighten our critical intelligence and our imaginations. It can provide ways of seeing and ordering the world – not just our world, but those worlds elsewhere that we know so little of.” Karen’s invitation for people to decide for themselves what beauty is, is not only gracious, it strengthens our civic fabric by enabling us to be creative and connected.
Our American story has been shaped, and will continue to be shaped, by the dynamic experiences and contributions of Black Americans. The need to ask ourselves fundamental questions like “What is beauty? Who decides? And where did my idea of ‘beauty’ come from, anyway?” may get much needed special attention during Black History Month, but for our state – and our society – it is really a year-round endeavor.
There are two opportunities before the month is out to hear from Karen and some of our other Road Scholars who have programs that support the commemoration of Black History Month and are available to share their work with your community.
Find more free, public presentations by our Road Scholar Speakers on our calendar at ILHumanities.org/events.
Hope to see you soon,
ABOUT ILLINOIS HUMANITIES
Illinois Humanities, the Illinois affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a statewide nonprofit organization that activates the humanities through free public programs, grants, and educational opportunities that foster reflection, spark conversation, build community and strengthen civic engagement. We provide free, high-quality humanities experiences throughout Illinois, particularly for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration. Founded in 1974, Illinois Humanities is supported by state, federal, and private funds.