Black and Better than Ever: Our Favorite 2016 Black History Month Moments

It’s a leap year, and that means even more time to celebrate our Black achievement and progress.

Op-ed by Imienfan Uhunmwuangho and Hannah McMorris

Since 1926, Blacks have heralded February as a month to not only reflect upon past history, but to also pay tribute to how far we’ve come. It goes without saying that Black lives should be celebrated year-round, but as we claim this month as our own, we’re commemorating the end of this year’s Black History Month with a compilation of our favorite moments.

The Obamas:

This is Obama’s final Black History Month as president, and there was no shortage of excitement in White House. Michelle Obama opened Black History Month at the Oval Office by inviting prominent Black choreographers to teach young Black girls some dance routines. The girls learned routines taught  by “Grey’s Anatomy” executive producer Debbie Allen, classical dance instructor Virginia Johnson, hip-hop choreographer Fatima Robinson and Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison. The girls learned the routines in just a few hours, and performed them on stage for POTUS. Debbie Allen shared a bit of the Black girl magic on Instagram.

Chile, we are DANCING at The @WhiteHouse this morning!!!!!!😘

A video posted by Debbie Allen (@therealdebbieallen) on

The celebration at the White House continued when 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin met the Obamas. McLaurin’s excitement is infectious as she gets both Michelle and Barrack to dance with her. As a Black woman who’s lived through everything from segregation to the first Black president, we understand why she can’t contain her joy. "I thought I would never live to get in The White House, and I tell you, I am so happy," McLaurin said to Obama.

Beyoncé Slayed

On Feb. 6, Beyoncé dropped a new song and stunning visuals to accompany it. “Formation” displayed Beyoncé’s pride in her southern roots, and reminded everyone that she is Black and better and than ever. The song is a celebration of Blackness and Black features as she declares“I like my Negro nose and Jackson Five nostrils / I like my baby hair with baby hair and afro.”  It’s a rallying cry for Black sisterhood as she features Black girls of all shades and hair textures, including her daughter Blue Ivy, in the video and encourages them to “get in formation.” The music video also addressed police brutality towards Black people, as the camera panned to a wall with the words “stop shooting us” written on it. It showed a young Black boy dancing in front of cops armed with bulletproof vests and shields. At the end of his dance, in an interesting twist, the cops raise their hands and surrender to him, reminiscent of Mike Brown’s final moments.

Beyoncé continued to address issues facing the Black community as she drowned on top of a Louisiana Police Department cop car to symbolize  how poorly the Louisiana government handled hurricane Katrina and the Black citizens it affected. To further address the plight of Black people in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, Beyoncé opens her music video with Messy Mya’s voice asking, “what happened at the New Orleans?”

She reminded us that #AllBlackLivesMatter by highlighting the typically marginalized voices of Black queer women. The video featured a voiceover from Big Freedia, a queer personality in the Black community.

Beyonce took it one step further and got into formation at the Super Bowl, where she performed the song during the halftime show a day after the Formation video dropped. She performed her brand new song with backup dancers who were dressed like Black Panthers. With Millions watching, Beyonce seized the opportunity to showcase her Blackness and openly discuss Black issues. However, both the video and performance were met with criticism, as many thought Beyoncé was promoting anti-police rhetoric. But Beyoncé remained gracious throughout the conflict; after all, the “best revenge is your paper.”

Increasing Hollywood Diversity

Though the #OscarsSoWhite controversy began in January, heated discussion continued into February. For the second year in a row, no people of color were nominated  in the top four Oscar categories. In 2015, despite its 99% approval rating, critically acclaimed “Selma”, was passed over for the Best Picture award. This year, prominent Black stars featured in movies like “Concussion”, “Creed”, and “Straight Outta Compton” were largely ignored. This lack of minority representation pushed many celebrities to boldly boycott the Oscars. In a video posted to her personal Facebook page, Jada Pinkett-Smith says, “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people, and we are powerful. So let's let the Academy do them, with all grace and love. And let's do us, differently.”

The Oscars premiered on February 28, and all eyes were on Chris Rock to address the elephant in the room. He opened the show cheekily saying, “Well, I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” and went on to say, “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist, but it’s not the racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist.” In his usual tongue-and-cheek manner, Rock says white Hollywood actors are nice, especially since they’re liberals, but are nonetheless discriminatory towards minority actors. Although Rock joked about the boycott, the controversy led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to double the amount of minority and women members by 2020.

Our cover girl Amandla Stenberg

17-year-old Amandla Stenberg reached peak levels of Black girl magic when she graced the cover of Teen Vogue’s February 2016 issue. Stenberg, who has been vocal about issues facing the Black community, particularly when it comes to Black women, discussed her blackness with the magazine. In the interview, she discussed everything from natural hair to Black identity, to how she feels about being the unofficial face in the #CareFreeBlackGirl movement. What made the interview even better is that it was conducted by Solange Knowles. Black girls are often put into boxes that restrict their identity, but Amandla and Solange represent the diversity among Black girls. They showed that as Black girls, we can wear our hair natural or straight. We can wear bright or dark colors. We can be ourselves, however we want, and to the fullest extent.

King Kendrick

Kendrick Lamar was our man of the night at the 2016 Grammys on Feb. 15. Kendrick won five of the 11 awards that he was nominated for, and although he lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift, he won the night with his performance. The performance opened with his song “The Blacker the Berry,” as he led a troop of shackled Black men on stage, representing the alarming and disproportionate rate at which Black men are incarcerated. Kendrick removed his shackles, signaling a transition. The mood shifted as he performed “Alright,” the song that became an unofficial protest anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. This portion of the performance was full of African-esque imagery, as dancers dressed in African-style clothing marched around the stage with power and pride, representing the African roots that Black people were stripped of during slavery. In the final moments of his performance, Kendrick switched gears and turned off all the background noise. It was just him, the stage, and a microphone as he performed a new, untitled song.  

In the song, he discusses police brutality as he mourns Trayvon Martin’s death. He says “on February 26, I lost my life too,” referring to the night Trayvon was killed. He continues to relate to Trayvon with the words “that was me yelling for help when he drowned in his blood,” meaning that Trayvon Martin’s fate, the fate of so many Black men, could’ve been his fate as well. Kendrick continues to spit the rest of his verse and battle his demons on stage as he talks about how Feb. 26, 2012 changed him and America forever. The verse ends with Kendrick saying this is a “conversation for the entire nation, it’s bigger than us.”

The final scene of his performance, and probably the most memorable, is the giant map of Africa with Compton written on it. It was Kendrick’s final reminder to the world that our roots are stronger than the shackles that bind us.

Aunjanue Makes Waves Through Fashion

The NAACP Image Awards took place on Feb. 5.  Aunjanue Ellis, known for her role in “Quantico” and “The Help,” attended the event in a long white gown, created by “Quantico” costume designer Sami Rattner.  The front of the dress read “take it down Mississippi” in bold, Black letters with two red handprints stamped beside the words. A native Mississippian, Ellis spoke about the remaining Confederate flag emblem on the Mississippi state flag. A symbol of white supremacy and racism, especially after the Charleston shooting in 2015, many states, except for Mississippi, decided to take down government-sanctioned Confederate emblems, In a TIME op-ed, Ellis vowed to “never act in another movie shot in this state until that flag comes down.” Referring to the Ku Klux Klan, she says, “this is about a state in the United States of America sharing iconography with a terrorist organization.”

"Black-ish"

“Black-ish” is a show on ABC that follows the lives of a Black family as they navigate the pros and cons of being Black in the 21st century. The show tackles issues from Black people in politics to Black body image, and on Feb. 24 the show addressed the issue of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The episode focused on the voices of young people and current events by mentioning the deaths of unarmed Black citizens such Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, and the series of protests that followed their deaths. The show also highlights the fear that Black parents feel for their children on a daily basis. "Black-ish” captured the wide range of emotions Black people endure, from confusion to anger, but most importantly, hope, by reminding us of Obama’s campaign message and dream.

American Girl Debuts New Doll, Melody

“While it’s easy to call us a doll company, we’ve always seen ourselves as storytellers,” says vice president of marketing of American Girl, Julia Prohaska. Since 1986, American Girl has designed over 20 dolls in its BeForever line, which showcases dolls from different historical time periods. American Girl has had 14 white dolls, while only three dolls have been Black. Melody Ellison, who made her debut this February and will be on the market this summer, is a nine-year-old girl from Motown, Detroit, growing up in the 1960s Civil Rights era. Preceding Ellison was Addy Walker created in 1993, who became the first non-white doll. In 2011, Cécile Rey from 1850s New Orleans was created but was later discontinued in 2014. While Walker represents the slave era of the 1860s, Ellison speaks for another important period of American Black history. With the debut of a civil rights era doll, young Black girls can gain hands-on knowledge of the incredible progress their community has and continues to achieve.