Lessons from Black History Month: A Path to Greatness

Editor's Note:

This Week in Peace chronicles the exciting adventures of San Jose’s own Dancer of Peace, Khalilah Ramirez. Written under divine inspiration, the column contains true stories of peace encounters in your neighborhood. In this edition, Khalilah shares the life of Josephine Baker and her example of pursuing greatness despite a difficult life.

Greetings to all who are reading! This Week in Peace looks back on Black History Month. The entire month of February is dedicated to celebrating black history. We teach our children about it in schools. We celebrate it by sharing stories of triumph and achievement throughout history. Companies, community organizations and colleges often arrange assemblies in order to showcase African American talent and customs. Yet some people wonder, what is it really all about? Is it appropriate to single out one group for recognition at the exclusion others? To shed some light on the situation, let’s take a look at its origins.

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” This date coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two pivotal figures in the African American history. The idea was to encourage schools and churches to use that time to highlight the experiences of black people who contributed to equality and advancement. Later in 1970, the Black United Students at Kent State University were the first to celebrate an entire month of black history. They saw it as “an opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” This worthy goal became a tradition. Black History Month is currently observed in six countries around the world.

As a Dancer of Peace and an African American, I enjoyed the privilege of sharing this proud history through the art of dance while including teachings of peace in my presentations. As I dance, my focus is always one of harmony, unity and peace. This vibration of peace acts as a healing salve to all. There are those among us who may angrily resent the cruelty and injustice that often characterizes stories about black history. Fortunately, black people tend to be excellent at retelling stories. This time with a far better beginning, middle and end than some of our ancestors had. Storytelling has long been a revered part of black history. We tell our stories with dance, drumming, singing and writing. In honor of those who paved the way, I will tell the story of Josephine Baker. Being a dancer, I feel that I am one of the ones that she opened the door for.

For a moment, let’s take the focus off of her celebrity and super stardom. Away from being the first black woman to do so many extraordinary things, Josephine had humble beginnings. She was born in St. Louis, so poor that she left her family at the age of 11 to find work. She joined a traveling dance group, moving around the country and learning the ways of the world. Josephine was saddened that opportunities for black performers were so restricted by racial inequality. She was subject to such racism as a performer on U.S. stages that she moved to France to pursue her artistic dreams. She was a creative dance performer who dared to be silly, sexy and outrageous to reach her audiences. She rocked the people of Paris with jaw-dropping antics and limbs that “seemed to be made of rubber.” Over time, she became the most loved and highest paid performer in Paris. Later, when WWII changed the landscape of her beloved adopted country, she became a spy. This appointment was ideal for her. Her celebrity status allowed her to enter parties and events that would be closed to the average black person. She survived her years as a spy and went on to become an active civil rights freedom fighter. She wrote articles against segregation and insisted on performing only at clubs that allowed racially mixed audiences. She worked closely with the NAACP and in her honor, the organization named March 20th 1951, Josephine Baker Day.

This is a brief blurb of her life, but it summarizes the essence of Black History Month. This occasion is about growth. That means expanding our knowledge of places and things that were once beyond our reach. It’s about helping others to understand not only the brilliant genius of African American citizens, but the genius that is hidden in all of us. Black History Month highlights the dangerous disadvantages that happen when that brilliance is hindered by prejudice and injustice. As we applaud the incredible talent and courage of African Americans, let’s make it a priority to learn from their examples, pursuing our own path to greatness despite resistance.

The Dance of Peace was delighted to take part in Black History Month events in a variety of settings. The Gilroy Center for The Arts, Facebook, Gavilan College and the Children’s Discovery Museum of San José were among the organizations that invited the Dance of Peace to be a part of the festivities. It was an honor to work with friends, dance like crazy, share knowledge and stories, all in the healing vibration of peace. Thank you to all of those who participated in observing Black History Month in our communities! See you out there!

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