February is Black History Month. It marks a period for celebration — celebration of Black culture, vast achievement, beloved Black leaders and righteous histories of organizing and social movements. But the history of Black Americans is both rich and complicated, and it continues to shape the country today.
This month, politicians will use self-serving rhetoric. We’ll see them emphasize as they do year after year, the passing of another year that ‘we’ as a collective society can proudly distance ourselves from the country’s dark history of chattel slavery – their reason for celebration.
But others will join us this month to challenge such misplaced celebrations. Slavery remains alive and well in the US. One of its many new names is incarceration, a system of control and containment born out of a constitutional amendment created to continue the enslavement of Black people through criminalization.
The US has no right to join in on the celebration for their own personal gain. Instead, we offer perspectives from and encourage the amplification of Black system-impacted voices — because ending mass incarceration necessitates they be heard.
We asked folks what Black History Month means to them, what Black Liberation means to them, what they want the world to look like in 20 years from now, and the changes they would make. Here’s what they said:
“For decades during my incarceration, Black History Month meant that I would get a chance to see the late, great Dr. Margret T. Burroughs, and the now-102 year old Queen Mother Helen Sinclair, because they would always visit each prison during that month. Dr. Burroughs and Mother Sinclair truly had a passion for teaching system-impacted people about Black History, and they not only had a wealth of Black History knowledge to share, but they themselves were a history story in the making. That's what Black History Month means to me the most.”
Vincent Boggan, Community Navigator
Incarcerated 32 years
“Because I learned most of my history lessons in a cell, I learned to love and respect myself from Mother Sinclair and the honorable Dr. Burroughs. They taught me to never walk around with my head down, never allow myself to fall into the foolish mindset of feeling sorry for myself. She would also say to us, ‘The people who feel sorry for themselves simply do not know their history.’ Black history is me. And I am Renaldo Hudson.”
Renaldo Hudson, Director of Education
Incarcerated 37 years
“In 20 years I hope the world will have no prisons, no police, revolutionary schools for all people, radical community leaders, mental health services for everyone.”
Destine Phillips, IPP Ambassador
“Being a system-impacted person has a profound influence on the way I view ‘Black History’. I view Black History through the lens of the disenfranchised human that is forced to linger on the fringes of society. It means that I must fight, struggle and even sometimes beg, for what many in this country are guaranteed by their status in life or because of their skin color.
This is why I am so proud to do the work that we do at the Illinois Prison Project. Being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with other fearless people that know all of humanity has value and all of us should be given the same opportunity..”
Anaviel (Anthony) Jones, Community Navigator
Incarcerated 29 years
“Black Liberation means African Americans being able to live with the same dreams, safety, opportunities and wealth opportunities as other races. In 20 years, I hope the world is peaceful and fair. I want fair sentencing. I would make changes to the laws that govern incarcerated people to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to fight for their freedom.”
Nejei Webster, IPP Ambassador
“Black Liberation means reparations from Slavery. It means an independent state from the imperialist United States.”
Denzel Burke, IPP Ambassador