For US Black History Month, guest writer Ashley Marshall reflects on the labour demanded of Black change-makers during this time and makes the argument for rest as a radical act.
I usually keep a very low profile during February, as it is my time for rest and to be one with my ancestors, my skin, my culture, my hair, the poetry that tells me that I am phenomenally myself. I felt moved to write this because there are far too many other Black people who still get up, do more, march, and perform other modes of free labour under the pressures of "I am not allowed to be tired." I write for them: we are all tired, and so please give yourself permission to set better boundaries than the "work ourselves to death" mentality that has been passed down to us epigenetically and from generational socialization. I write so that it is written, and hopefully from there our regeneration will have more power.
I am a professor of communications, with a Master’s in English. My lived experience is definitely a form of intelligence – one that comes with a skillset that we on the margins are called on to implement every day at work but are never compensated for. I grew up poor, the last child of a single-mother, myself a first generation in a colonized country, unambiguously Black skinned and afro-haired, Queer, tall, and smart. "Fitting in" was not in the cards for me, but standing out was. Too often Black people will do whatever it takes to “fit in,” even if the frame we have to contort ourselves into is racially ignorant, culturally insensitive, and reduces over 400 years of our liberation struggle, movements for abolitionism, fights for freedom, and celebrations of our indelibility to “Read a poem by a Black Canadian author.”
Being Black comes with a rich mix of cultural joy, expression, community, rhythm, style, and more. My Blackness is never the hard part. Being Black in predominantly white spaces is where danger, discomfort, surveillance, and the pressures to fit stereotypes come into play. Here are two examples of this from my own personal and professional life:
1. After presenting my research at Harvard’s annual Black Portraitures conference, I founded the Black Student Success Network at my job. This additional duty was born out of necessity, not because it came with a pay raise. Part of our guiding principles is that as Black people, we face unique challenges, and this goes for the classroom, the corporate office, and any other facet of our lived experiences. As Black faculty, we are skilled with guiding students who face these unique challenges, in a way that no-one else can, as is the power of culture and community. Again, no pay increases, yet a demand for this work, and an expectation that of course we volunteer. Five years later, diversity has made its way into the Strategic Business Plan - as a recruitment tool. As we all know from contemporary corporate speak: the standard is not that racism is bad, it's that racism is bad for business.
2. In the region where I live, a suburb not far from Toronto, Ontario, there was a very embarrassing Black History Month controversy in 2021 that made national news. The Region of Durham, the body responsible for municipal politics and services, issued a company-wide Black History Month “Scavenger Hunt” that included tasks such as “Have a conversation with a Black employee and name them,” “Spend a few minutes to learn about Africa,” “Dance to a reggae song,” and more trivial, offensive tasks. The child-like activity was sent to all staff employed by the Region of Durham.
Soon after, Desmond Cole, a prominent Toronto-based journalist, took to social media to call out the racial ignorance of such an activity. The “Scavenger Hunt” was cringe at best, and completely downplayed the contributions and experiences of Black people, as usual. As news outlets approached Desmond for comment, he called me, passing the media contacts my way because I live and work in the region and would be better suited to give voice to these concerns.
I had my interview criticizing The Region of Durham for its tone-deafness with regards to anti-Black racism at noon, and had an interview with a senior member of The Region of Durham to act as a reference for a very respected colleague of mine – a brilliant, Caribbean woman - to become the leader of their diversity team at 12:30. It was an uncomfortable afternoon, to say the least. “This workplace does not know anything about Black people,” then “I recommend this outstanding Black woman to be hypervisible in this workplace because you are in desperate need of reform, and she is the best one for the job. I recommend her for this uphill battle.” Just one of the many concessions and ethics-checks we need to make, every day.
And before we get to thinking that this ignorance could only possibly have been done by a white person, it is important to acutely realize that when Black people have been socialized into knowing they are alone, ostracized, hyper-surveilled, stereotyped, and typically called on to speak for an entire continent of people and its diaspora, such a phenomenon as code-switching can be expected.
I say all of this to arrive at the commonplace experiences of Black people while employed at companies that give too little regard for knowledge, expression, upskilling and furthering education, and otherwise creating safety for employees to do their jobs. As Cole aptly wrote in 2021, “an activity like this really shows how desperate workplaces are to avoid talking about Black people’s real issues.”
This Black History Month, I offer you a list of some timeless strategies to take into the workplaces that often get it wrong:
1. Develop a deeper understanding of intersectionality – and act accordingly.
Instead of seeking those with specialized knowledge to perform free labour for you, do your own work. That work might include fundraising to hear the wisdom of a Black expert, community-member, or employee. They do not owe you their trauma, their resilience, their immigrant story, their radical strategies, or any behavioural sugar that makes racism seem more “nice.” Remember that race, gender, class, access, ability, and a host of other identity politics operate at the same time. “If they want freedom so bad, why don’t they educate us” is a blame-shifty non-starter. I turn to the work of James Baldwin to make this point clear: “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.”
2. Build community – and know how to be in community.
The idea of the individual is a construct, a technology of control if you will. Black people know that we are stronger together. Release the idea that YOU have to. If you don’t know, or if you can’t, knowing how to find the organizations who do what you seek is key. Make sure you know your local Indigenous elders, journalists you can call on, graphic designers you are friends with on social media. What local organizations do you know, and who knows you?
Oftentimes there is pressure that we need to help everyone but we are stretched too thin. Do YOU need to give the Black History Month presentation, or can you recommend BWIM (Black Women in Motion), your local chapter of the Black Women’s Collective, or amplify the work of ongoing abolition? Make sure to be in good rapport with the organizations who do non-profit work full-time, and always be in a position to support them, recommend them for gigs, promote their wins, and be in good, reciprocal community.
3. The Black mundane is radical – and necessary.
It is politically different when Black bodies are at rest. So used to constant strain, it is an act of radical self-care to rest, because our lives, and our future generations depend on it. All too familiar is the internalized pressure that we need to be twice as good, because often, we do, only to get half the opportunities, recognition, or advancement. So find moments to recharge, and take that ancestral prize seriously. Hustle culture will have us believing that “I’ll sleep when I die” is commendable.
Businesses can support this by realizing what is their work, and not the work of the community experiencing pain or tragedy. Grant requests for time off in a timely manner, realize the ontology behind oppression, and that seeing it done to one of us affects all of us, and just let Black people grieve or be in grief when once again we are the targets of a hate crime without calling on us for free labour or encroaching on us to hand out ally cookies. Be just as militant about doing for yourself and your community what it takes to stay alive. As adrienne maree brown says, “a rested body is a strong body.” Having us broken and busy is a cornerstone to our oppression.
There are thousands of years of Black history. What we do with it today makes an impact on our futures. Rest, and hold firm to your “no’s.”
Ash Marshall (she/they)
Ashley's research critiques how power, economics, and politics influence social change, while advocating for imagination and creativity as alternatives to neoliberal market logics. As a full-time professor of communications, Ashley is continuing to develop projects rooted in place-based pedagogy, urbanism, public intellectualism and equity.
You can find more information about Ashley here.
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