The continued need to recognize Black History Month was a central theme of the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s annual event hosted virtually Feb. 10.
Keynote speaker, Shirley A. Jones, 15th national president of the Blacks In Government organization and managing associate general counsel for the Government Accountability Office’s Office of General Counsel, expressed the need to continue highlighting diversity and equality in many aspects of life.
“The last two years have shown that there are continuing inequities in healthcare, policing, housing and indeed in employment,” Jones said. “So, if we’re ever going to have that beloved community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused, where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood, then it will take each of us.”
A nation’s progress
Since 1915, when Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the organization has endeavored to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture, according to the ASALH website. One such feat was the establishment of Negro History Week in 1926, later renamed Black History Month by President Ford in 1976.
Jones, in her many roles, advances that mission through mentorship and education, sometimes to audiences unaware of important African Americans other than those most widely highlighted in grade schools, she said.
She understands this as evidence of the need to continue the missions of organizations like BIG and ASALH, as well as through federal recognition of Black life and achievements and other advocacy.
“It’s not their fault that they don’t know,” Jones said of those audiences. “It’s simply because we’re not there yet,” Jones said.
One step toward getting “there,” she said, is when the teaching of Black history “has become a central component of the teaching of American history.”
She noted and praised the nation’s cultural advancements over the last century, from popular films such as “Birth of a Nation” that depict racist and demeaning views of African Americans, to the establishment of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Jones even cited progress toward equality, evidenced in her personal accomplishments including becoming the first Black woman to serve in her current role with the GAO but says there is still work to be done.
“Isn’t that evidence enough that we don’t need Black History Month anymore? Absolutely not,” she said.
Health, wellness, and impacts of COVID-19
The theme for this year’s national Black History Month celebration is “Black Health and Wellness,” one that she says is even more significant in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“This theme highlights, and what the pandemic highlights, is that there is still so much work to be done to counter the health and economic disparities that continue to exist,” Jones said.
While government employees have been working hard to provide the nation with vital services, some are hesitant to return due to still-present disparities in society, she said.
“The government did not shutdown in 2020,” Jones said. “Many of us, in fact, worked even longer hours when we, as public servants, delivered government services when the American people needed us the most … But experts are reporting that yet others, especially minorities, are not looking forward to returning to the stress of the microaggressions in the workplace that they previously faced.”
She described microaggressions as “those everyday subtle intentional and unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate bias, prejudice or discrimination.”
The road ahead
Jones, describing herself as an action-oriented person, then posed an open-ended question she often enjoys asking those struggling with situations that seem endless or insurmountable: Where do we go from here?
Resilience was her answer.
“But what do I mean by being resilient,” Jones asked? “[It’s] the ability to manage the challenges that we all undoubtedly face, not running from them. Not shrinking and hiding but facing them head-on with your head held up high.
“I mean accepting the challenges, and perceived failures, and recovering from them and even improving from them,” she continued. “Because it is indeed your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how your life story will develop.”
She reminded event participants that “life isn’t perfect for anyone,” and everyone will fail at times and often not receive the support or recognition they feel they deserve.
Jones referenced several examples of this resilience including the late Chadwick Boseman, known for his role in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” who visited children in cancer treatment, never revealing his own battle with the disease. She also mentioned Lucy McBath, the Congresswoman from Georgia who rose to her seat after losing a son to gun violence and dedicating herself to a platform of protection against such atrocities.
With these examples, Jones reminded participants that we all have the capacity for strength.
“We are all pictures of resilience in our own right,” she said.
Then came her challenge.
“I challenge you to make resilience your superpower,” Jones said.
“I challenge you to see every adversity as only temporary; a learning opportunity,” she said. “I challenge you to see every success as a mere steppingstone to the next. But lastly, as we all leave here today, I challenge us to be as resilient as our ancestors, and I challenge us to see this celebration of Black History Month as a mere pebble towards our efforts of greater diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”
Army Brig. Gen. Eric Shirley, DLA Troop Support commander, followed Jones’ address with thanks and describing her as an “inspirational role model,” with a reminder to the workforce on why presentations such as this matter.
“This is an important part of what makes us strong as an organization,” Shirley said.