Every year, February rolls around and people in the United States scramble. We scramble because we’re thinking of how to celebrate Black History Month in a way that acknowledges the significance of the month.
We know that it’s coming, but after 40 years of its official designation, it can sometimes seem like the month has just become another default holiday. That’s why The New York Times put a twist on commemorating the accomplishments of African Americans in this country. The Times said it will release one previously unpublished photograph a day from its archives along with the back story to the image. This comes as part of the Times’ new project “Unpublished Black History,” an effort to further the conversation about race.
The decision to celebrate Black History Month with photographs shows that images hold a prominent place in our understanding of the black experience in America. Yet, to a generation of millennials, constantly inundated with images, these photos will be a test to the resilience of a month whose significance is sometimes not fully understood.
Millennials are among the first batch of students who have been celebrating Black History Month since elementary school. Therefore, millennials of all races have an institutional understanding of the major players in the black experience: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall are among some of the greats.
This textbook knowledge can unfortunately foster apathy. The reasons behind why we celebrate the month can fade. Luckily, that’s why we have photos, right?
Many experts argue that the civil rights movement resonated with so many Americans because pictures of dogs mauling demonstrators and millions of people attending the March on Washington became imprinted into the American psyche. They continued to be passed down to help inform our understanding of the black experience in America.
For our generation, we have a different relationship to images. They remain key to understanding the world and how it is changing.
In the time it took me to write this column, I sent at least three selfies on Snapchat, just because. I instinctively refreshed my Facebook feed and saw what my friends were doing through their photos and captions. All of us see more images in a day than any previous generation. The overflow of images can make them seem vapid.
The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism lecturer Miki Turner is a photojournalist who has worked with JET and Ebony and grew up during the civil rights movement.
“There’s been a shift in empathy,” Turner said. “I don’t think we’re as raw as we used to be, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.”
The Times’ photo project will be a test to us millennials about how much our psyche can still be penetrated.
In the past year, we have seen disturbing videos and pictures of African Americans being shot, tackled by police officers or made victims of crime. There is outrage. There is commentary. But these instances just don’t seem to move the needle like they did just 50 years ago.
“When I think about some of the photos I saw in Ebony and JET as a kid, some of them just made you want to lose your lunch,” Turner said. “But today I don’t think we go there as much. It’s happening, though, because of smartphones, so we’re not so dependent on the still image as we were back then because you get the video.”
The still image has power if we allow it.
In the week since the Times released its project, there have been photographs of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball in the modern era, and a series of photos of James Baldwin, famed African American novelist and essayist.
The one that was most striking, however, is a black-and-white photograph of a young African-American girl and white boy writing together on a chalkboard. It was taken shortly into the wake of schools being integrated. The kids couldn’t have been older than 10-years-old, but they encompassed the climate of of a rapidly changing culture.
The photograph helped me put a human face to what I knew from my history classes. It helped me connect to the distant moment.
It can be the same for all of us. If we are willing to pause and look, we millennials will realize the power images can still command over us.
Time will tell how much these photographs will impact us. Documentation is needed to record history, so if this project does nothing else, it will help us write another page into Black History Month.
Use these next weeks to make February much more than that. The Times is giving you the photos — now do something with them.
After reading “Wait An L.A. Minute” on Tuesdays, join Jordyn Holman in her millennial conversations on Twitter @JordynJournals. She’s a senior studying print and digital journalism.