Recently, I was asked to reflect on why Black History Month is important to me and why should it be important to members of the legal community.
As a Black woman, I believe that it’s critical for me to understand what others endured and lost so that I can have the opportunities I have today. Exploring the history of Black communities keeps me grounded on days when I’m struggling and want to give up.
As members of the legal profession, we must recognize and educate ourselves on the ways in which the Black experience is intertwined with our legal system. The practice of law requires knowledge of where we came from to understand why our society and justice system function as they do today.
Many TV shows and movies do a great job of depicting Black history. And, given that it’s Black History Month and winter in Illinois, I would encourage you to add these to your February viewing lists.
“One Night in Miami”
“One Night in Miami” follows the aftermath of the night when Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammed Ali, became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
While some of the film has been fictionalized, the movie, which is inspired by true events, depicts the friendship between four civil rights leaders – Clay, minister and activist Malcolm X, football player Jim Brown, and singer-songwriter Sam Cook — who influenced the movement in very different ways.
Throughout the night, viewers see these men struggle with their celebrity amid the racial and cultural challenges of the Jim Crow-era South.
For instance, Sam Cook struggles with how to use his platform to create change in America, like integrating music venues or using his music to make the struggles of Black Americans known.
And though Jim Brown is an American favorite in football, he battles feeling like a piece of property under someone else’s control.
Before watching this movie, I didn’t know that these men shared a genuine friendship. I put the movie on this list not only to shed light on these important relationships but also because it portrays a side of Malcolm X that is frequently forgotten.
Malcolm X is often depicted as a man who sought to ensure equality and empowerment for Black people “by any means necessary.” While people often equate that short phrase with violence, the truth is that he just wanted to end aggression against Black people.
“One Night in Miami” gives us a closer look at what inspired Malcolm X’s work. We see a man who wanted equal treatment and opportunities for Black people, a father scared of the world his daughters would grow up in, and a leader frightened of the impact his magnified voice may have on his loved ones.
In “Hidden Figures,” we follow the true story of three Black women mathematicians as they rise from NASA’s segregated wing to become instrumental figures in launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit and engineering his safe return.
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson – who were known as “human computers” – climbed the ranks at male-dominated NASA at a time when women, if permitted to work at all, were usually secretaries.
Not only did they combat the societal and professional pressures of holding demanding jobs while running a household and being full-time mothers, but they did so as Black women at a time before the Civil Rights Act was passed and when segregation was rampant.
One of the most powerful moments in the movie focuses on segregated bathrooms. In this scene, Katherine Johnson is asked why she is late to a meeting. She responds by saying she’s late because the “colored women” bathroom is more than a 30-minute walk away.
“Hidden Figures” not only sheds light on the disparity between men and women in the workplace in the 1960s, but also on the personal and professional consequences women faced — and still face today — when pursuing careers in male-dominated spaces.
Most importantly, “Hidden Figures” shows us that when given the opportunity, Black women are quite literally capable of anything.
“Women of the Movement”
The “Women of the Movement” miniseries focuses on Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, and her fight for civil rights and justice following the brutal murder of her son.
Even though I’ve read countless books and articles about this tragedy, the pain I feel from knowing that it happened never eases. That’s why this series is so important.
Emmett’s story hits close to home. My dad, who was raised in South Carolina, wasn’t much younger than Emmett at the time that Emmett was murdered. So, while it’s easy to say that 1955 was a long time ago and our county has changed, many of our family members, friends, and neighbors lived through it and remember it well.
As members of the legal community, it’s important that we’re reminded that the justice system hasn’t always been “just” for people of color. And, to continue to work for a more equitable legal system, we have to know where we came from.
“Women of the Movement” shows us how one woman’s unimaginable pain helped ignite a movement toward more equality in the future.
“Black-ish” (Season 4, Episode 1)
Juneteenth was made an official U.S. holiday as of June 2021. But why?
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people in the Confederacy. However, the Emancipation Proclamation couldn’t be implemented in places still under Confederate control, i.e., Texas.
Freedom finally reached the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay. This day came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed Texans.
“Black-ish” uses this episode, which aired in 2017, to celebrate “the day in America where all slaves were finally freed” and to explore why many Americans don’t (or didn’t) acknowledge it or even know about it.
In the episode, after attending a play at his kids’ school about Christopher Columbus, Dre Johnson and his father become incensed, asking the teacher why she feels the need to honor Columbus while eschewing other holidays, like Juneteenth.
“We celebrate a horrible man when we don’t even acknowledge important moments in our own history,” Dre tells his coworkers later.
“This is what America always does,” he says. “We think if we don’t acknowledge something awful, it didn’t happen.” (Check out the Schoolhouse Rock-esq takeoff that illustrates the end of slavery below.)
Anthony Anderson, who plays Dre, told Good Morning America that the goal of “Black-ish” is to “move the culture forward with our show and to say important things and to be provocative and thought-provoking.” He said the Juneteenth episode “embodied all of that — and then some.”
While I recommend this episode specifically, I would really recommend that you binge the entire series as it dives into the many complexities of being Black in America.
What movies, TV shows, podcasts, YouTube series, etc., are you watching and listening to this Black History Month? Share in the comments below.
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