Deeper Sense of Belonging: One Perspective on Black History Month
By Joseph Canty, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Best Buddies International
2022 is now in full swing. February is here and we’re all picking up new routines and ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. For me, February has always been something quite different. The month serves as a reminder of what my ancestors worked hard for and where my family comes from. I would describe it as watching a television series that you just binged and could not stop watching it. A history lesson if you will. In my family, we celebrate our culture and history every month, but we use the month of February to share and teach the younger generation of family members our ancestry and the history of our culture.
A sense of nostalgia comes over me as I recall the life lessons taught to me by my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. They often spoke about great leaders that came before us all in the Black community. A smile comes to my face as I think of the gestures and the tone that my grandparents would speak in with such pride about W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, and so forth. I clearly remember so many critical moments growing up in such a large family. As many of us discover, it’s not until later in life that you truly appreciate the significance of these experiences. My great-grandmother would always give us silver dollars with a history lesson, and my grandfather would talk to us about being responsible and knowing how to deal with adversity. He always referenced leaders from around the world, family members, and his life experiences to make his points. These are fond memories for me as they gave me a deep sense of belonging and a deeper sense of purpose.
Both of my parents grew up in the South, and they would send my siblings and me to visit with cousins and family in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida during the summer months. My mother always made a point to say, “you have to know where you come from, love family, and learn to love all people.” To drive this message home, we would often take field trips to historic sites like Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s birthplace, or visit Bethune Cookman University to learn about the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. I refer to this as mirrors and windows, being able to see myself through the experiences of other people who look like me and can identify with my experiences. This is why representation and inclusion mean so much.
Growing up in the Bronx, New York, it was easy to see the obstacles in front of me as a child, but it was much more impactful to see the accomplishments of people who looked like me but were also able to bring other people together who didn’t look like me. I saw the value of community and helping one another, service. Many of my family members are members of the Divine-9, which is the nine historically Black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs) that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council. My mother is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and my father is a member of Kappa Alph Psi fraternity, so as a young man, I was always out volunteering in the community with my parents, relatives, and family friends. While volunteering, I learned a lot about other cultures and how similar our perspectives, traditions, and values were.
The environments we live in have a profound impact on us. The Bronx was like growing up in a movie as everything you saw on TV was happening in my neighborhood, on my block, or the next borough over. Exposure matters. Everything from clothing to music, the way you talk, walk, and most importantly, who you look up to. One of the most profound experiences I had growing up was seeing images of black leaders in the windows of bodegas I would walk by on my way to school. I also got to see signs that showed a sense of support for Black History Month in other languages from other cultures. One sign that I vividly recall included the likeness of Pelé, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin promoting BHM. These were three individuals who had a profound impact on society, and more specifically in New York City. This was such an impactful experience for me because I could see where they lived in communities nearby.
In elementary school, I had to memorize and recite a pome for my first Black History Month program. I loved poetry at a young age, so I always looked through my parent’s book collections to find new poems to read. James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes were constants in the Canty household. So I chose to recite the poem titled “Dreams” by Langston Hughes. To this day, this poem inspires me as I am sure it inspires others. Holding fast to our dreams is something we should all do. Dreams are what create the wonderful opportunities we can offer through Best Buddies for so many amazing people.
The concept that dreams can become your reality felt real growing up in the Canty household and continue to shape who I am. This concept carries over in my efforts as a father working to inspire my children to dream. That dream has been amplified through my passion for service and love for all people. One of the main reasons I enjoy working at Best Buddies International is the fact that I get to learn more about advocating for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Having a child with IDD has helped me to see the world through a broader lens. You learn never to take things for granted but you also understand how important it is to be positive at all times. Most importantly, seeing my son recognize his greatness through each milestone he meets has been amazing. He loves who he is and he loves his family and community. Celebrating who my son is is today and his potential warms my heart as I reflect on what might have been the hopes and dreams of our ancestors.
I have shared a lot about my family and some of the life lessons that have guided me in my journey through life thus far. To sum things up, Black History Month is about honoring those that came before me to make the world a better place, a reminder to find a deeper connection to my ancestry, and an opportunity to bring others together. It is my lived experience. It is inclusion.