Black History Month and the Magic of Cultural Retention

“One sip for Grandma, one sip for sissy, and one sip for me,” I hear my two-year-old daughter say delightedly as she passes around her juice cup. I laugh and remind her that Kwanzaa is over now, while feeling a sense of wonder at how much the tradition of passing the unity cup meant to her. She reminds me of my childhood, sitting in my Grandmother’s kitchen eating rice out of the large silver pan with my cousins. When we reminded my Grandmother of those memories on her 75th birthday zoom call last year, she got emotional. “I did that,” she said furtively, “because I wanted you all to understand family. I wanted you to understand that it is important to care for each other, to share what you have. I am so happy you remember because that closeness is all I ever wanted.” I turn to my smiling toddler, who has yet to meet her Great-Grandmother, and ask, “one sip for mommy, please.

This interaction with my daughter was magical for me. Even describing it, I feel connected to a deep sense of comfort and joy. It was a moment in which I was able to see my daughter connect to something both deeply personal to me and much larger than me, an ancestral belief about what it means to be in love and community and to demonstrate that physically. It felt both grounding and uncanny as I’ve found many magical moments do. This February, as we enter into lots of conversation around Blackness and culture, I invite us to look for more of this type of magic around us. The magic our Blackness helps us cultivate both intentionally and instinctively.

The choice to focus on magic during Black History Month may seem like a strange one, a deviation to the fantastical when we are supposed to be focused on the historical, but such a view is stifling to a term that deserves an expansive definition. If we think of magic as a force or power that influences both how we experience life events and the outcomes of those events, then I think we must accept that humans can be magical, even in our very real world. We may describe their actions in different words, as inspiring or visionary for example, but if what we mean is that something about their action and their being defies what we previously understood as normal and as possible, I offer up that we can also call those humans magical. The people we tell stories about during Black History Month, the music we play, and the art we consume all have a magical element to them that I think should be named, celebrated, and emulated.

What, you might ask, would be the point of this linguistic shift? I’d argue that the answer is two-part: empowerment of ourselves as individuals and investment in further developing the magic within us. Words have power and there may be a powerful impact in perceiving oneself as a magical being. That is, perceiving yourself as someone with access to tools and knowledge that can influence your personal circumstance and that of the world around you. You are not a superhero or a God, but a person that has taken the time to observe what others ignore and value what others dismiss. I find even greater strength and encouragement in the idea that some of this learning has existed in my ancestry in different forms since the beginning. Thinking of the cultural norms and practices passed on to me as magic to help me thrive in a chaotic world makes me more invested in learning more about this heritage and ensuring that it is passed on. The significance of this is multiplied when you think about the ways in which colonization and white supremacist culture have contributed to the suppression of the history, culture, and tradition of Black people across the diaspora. Our capacity to hold on to key elements of that ancestral wisdom while creating new learning and ways of being is a magic of its own. My family is Liberian, my partner is African-American, and our children have received the practice of sharing a plate or cup from both sides of their heritage. 

The limits of our non-fictional world may mean that we are not able to exert full control over the things we would like to change in our lives, but there is still space for magic in how we navigate and respond. I may not be able to still the stressors and anxieties of the world for myself and my loved ones, but I know the songs that serve as calming wells for our souls. I may not be able to prevent my children from experiencing anti-blackness, but I can still weave a spell of love, beauty, and confidence into every plait I braid on their heads. I may not be able to control when or how the people I love pass on from this life, but I do make space for them and their continued guidance in my heart and home. In the moments of deep pain, loss, or conflict, I have survived, in part, because of the small fragments of healing and protective ancestral magic at my disposal. As the world around us becomes more chaotic and unpredictable, I feel called as a Black woman with concern for my community to expand my knowledge of what wisdom, what magic, was lost or stolen and integrate it back into my every day. 

The fragility of our local and global society has been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The climate crisis our societal structure has created will continue to have even more of a devastating impact. The unreliable nature of governments and political systems managed by those driven by hatred and greed creates a suffocating anxiety about the future. These challenges, alone and in tandem, create a reality that demands an incredible amount of fortitude. Increasing numbers of mental health diagnoses, child suicides in our community, and new sudden illnesses indicate that we are already losing the battle for survival and sustainability. Like so many others before me, I am finding that a big part of our pathway forward has to be reaching back. In doing so, I hope we redefine the way we think about “family units,” community responsibility, food sources, education, etc. We are in desperate need of magic, and I believe we will find it in the small things — in the way we use our hands, our time, and our words. A recommitment to finding the magical power in Black music, art, tradition, and cultural wisdom of the past and an intentional curating of new wisdom, new power, new spells to guide us forward. 

My vision of what needs to be may seem like a lofty one, but I think there are small and accessible starting points for each of us. A prioritizing of the tools and knowledge that may address our most immediate personal needs and a willingness to share and develop those skills in others. My personal priorities at the moment surround self-sustenance for my chosen family; my personal, mental, and emotional wellness; and the building of mutual aid networks to meet the challenges I see my communities facing in the near future. The first steps I am taking towards these priorities this Black History Month include doing a gardening project with my children, repotting the plants I already have in my home, and hosting at least one mutual aid network meeting. I expect each action to fuel my spirit in a different way, each step to increase my capacity for finding and cultivating the magic around me. I hope that in this grounding and empowering of myself, I am able to cultivate something that prepares me for whatever challenges to come. I think we are surrounded by magical humans, that Black people collectively have a deep history of magic, and that we will find ourselves needing to draw on that history — recovering what was lost and/or stolen — in order to create an acceptable future.