Black History Month During A Pandemic, Told Through The Eyes Of One Family

Richard Williams wanted to know what Black History Month meant — so he asked all four generations of his family.

An older man in an air force uniform and a younger man in a vest stand behind a seated woman in a yard

Like many of us, Richard Williams has been figuring out how to be creative in a pandemic that limits so much of what we can do. The photographer and graphic designer is close with his family, who are based in Prince George’s County, Maryland, an affluent and largely Black suburb of Washington, DC. Williams has been photographing his family as a part of an ongoing personal project, which gave him the idea to speak with all four generations about how they feel about Black History Month. Especially after the past year, how did Black History Month look different, and were they recognizing it at all? Like any family around a proverbial dinner table, Williams’ relatives had different opinions on how and if the celebrations mattered. The visual and oral history of this one family is a fascinating look at how history is constantly evolving.

How do you feel you are leaving your mark as a Black person?

RW Sr.: I’m a Black man that was born in the ’50s. I was born into a family where I had two parents, a mother and a father. I'm the third of five children. Everything I knew was my Black history. All my aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents were African American, and as I grew up, I was told their stories about the family, about their parents, my great-great-grandparents.

I was fortunate enough to meet my grandmother on my father's side, who was born in 1900. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when my mother was 13 years old, so I met his younger brother, who lived to be in his early nineties, and he was born in the 1880s. He served in World War I, so he shared with me his systemic racism experiences in the United States Navy, serving in WWI and having to be degraded to subservient service, and then in the Navy as only someone who was doing housekeeping chores or food service–type work. He was also a wounded veteran from combat, and my grandfather was also an Army veteran.

Ronald Williams: I'm going to be another Black person on Broadway — I aspire to be — or acting on film. I'm also going to be in the military [as well]. Those are some long-term goals for the next two or three years. But I guess now I can say I'm contributing to Black history because of my nephew. I'm going to always help my brother raise him to be the best Black young man he can be. He’s always going to have our help to always be a good role model for his friends.

An older man and a younger man

How have you celebrated Black History Month in the midst of the pandemic?

Richard Williams Sr.: I have been celebrating Black history in multiple ways. I talk to my Black seniors on a regular basis and check in with them. Check in on them, seeing if they need anything — it's part of the culture I was raised up in. PBS has a lot of Black history programs on throughout the day. I particularly reminisce on the civil rights struggle because I grew up in that era.

I noticed that somewhere in Nebraska they had an opt-out policy where parents could sign to opt out for their children, Caucasian and other nationalities, to not take Black history. And then the appropriate people got involved and the educators mandated that that was part of the curriculum.

Currently, and in the direction of where we're going, I particularly find myself to be fortunate to grow up in Washington, DC. All my educators in public school were 99.5% African American, and even the other ones that weren't, they were adept and knowledgeable and astute with Black history and facts. My teachers also shared with me their civil rights activism and their struggles, so I consider myself fortunate. That pushes information from me to my children and grandchild. I also stay engaged. I stay engaged in the Black community.

A middle-aged woman with woods behind her looking at the camera

How has motherhood positively shifted your experience as a Black woman? How have you left a legacy of Black history for your children?

Pamela Crockett-Williams: It was important to me that my children get some of the opportunities that I didn't have. I did the best I could for myself. I knew the things that I set out to accomplish for me, I had to accomplish so that I could provide a good life for my children. So as a parent, it was important that my children were engaged in sports and activities. I was a team mom on many occasions, and all at the same time, my daughter had rehearsals, who now dances on Broadway. So, it's important that I — I just want my children and my legacy to be that I gave them the freedom to be whatever they wanted to be. I didn't want them to grow up and have to be stuck in a box.

How has fatherhood shifted your experience as a Black man?

RW Sr.: My greatest achievement in life has been the honor of being a father — of being a Black father. I had fears every time that my Black children go outside the door because I don't know if they're going to come back, but despite that, I have faith. I have faith in God that he will keep them safe just like he was able to keep me and and the four other children that my parents had safe.

As a parent, that's the one thing you don't get a handbook for. You can't go to PTAs and do 90 PTAs and get a certificate for being a parent. [Being] a parent is a day-by-day process, but it's a joyous process, you know? It's a joy to watch your children grow up from infants into wonderful human beings that are also selfless individuals. They understand the bigger picture. I am eternally grateful to my God for allowing me to be a parent.

As a Black person, where or to whom do you look for the best representation of yourself?

Ronald Williams: My siblings, to be honest. I see them being successful in everything they do all the time, no matter what it is. They try, and they succeed. Even if they do fail at one point, they're going to keep working through it, and that's what gave me the “never quit” that I have.

Two women seen together in a mirror

As a Black person, where or to whom do you look for the best representation of yourself?

Dominique Allen, older sister: My family. My family is very blackity-Black on both sides, and on each side, I know that we're very educated women. And it doesn't always look like a college degree, but we’re very well-informed people. I know that I can always seek knowledge from them.

I look for inspiration from Black women. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors; I read a lot of her books.

I remember in sixth grade we had to do a project on the Harlem Renaissance. I learned a lot about Black writers and authors and artists of all sorts. You learn to be more proud of who you are. You see all these Black people contribute to history, contribute to this world.

I'm the first of my immediate family to graduate from college. I am Black history. I'm smart. I’m family oriented. I am uniquely made. I love my people. I celebrate my people.

How do you feel you are leaving your mark as a Black person?

Linda Allen, Dominique's mother: I have two daughters that graduated from college and I’m proud of them. I did a hell of a job raising them.

A stylish woman and a dog

How have you celebrated Black History Month in the midst of the pandemic?

Bria Williams, sister: Right now, I’m very proud to be where I am. I look at all of us and all of the pivoting that we’ve done, and just how we’re constantly reinventing ourselves and sticking to it, and kind of thinking about where we’ve come from as a culture, and how we started off with so little and how we have — we have been set in a position where we can do whatever the fuck we want to do. And I think that that’s beautiful to just be young people and creative people.

How did you pivot and maintain your mental health after watching Black communities face so many disparities during the pandemic? During protests?

BW: I feel like I’ve always been very passionate about these things. In the past I used to handle it, quite frankly, with anger and aggression, but with everything that's been going on, I had to remind myself of the beautiful things that come with blackness and Black bodies. Because to a point, when it first started [the pandemic and protests], I loved the conversations that it was starting, but also, I felt like it was also a way that the media was putting toxins back into people's lives. There were moments I felt like the televising of all of that wasn't productive, so I made it my responsibility for myself, for my sanity and psyche, to look at the beautiful things and remember that that’s not all there is when it comes to Black lives.

A man in a home gym holding a toddler

How do you feel you are leaving your mark as a Black person?

Rashard Williams, twin brother, father of Roman: Graduating from an HBCU, I feel like that was a big accomplishment for me and my family, and being able to influence my younger brother to go to an HBCU. Schoolwise, I grew up in an all-Black area. It told me a lot. How to survive and thrive, not only in the neighborhood but in corporate America. To have tenacity.

A woman holding a toddler standing in a field

How do you link Black history to your accomplishments?

Claudette Wesley, mother of Roman: I think one thing that I'll say is an accomplishment is the stigma of being a young parent. I went to church and somebody literally was like, “I didn't think you would do this,” and I was like, “Do what?” right? And they would just kind of look at me, and in that moment, you feel all of that judgment and stigma of having a kid young, and “Black girls get pregnant — they don't get married,” and, maybe, but it doesn't have to be in a negative way. I feel like I took that scenario or circumstance and turned it around. I still finished school. I can tell Roman, “I went to school when I was pregnant with you and I did well.”

An older woman and her daughter look in a mirror

How have you left a legacy of black history for your children?

Erika: Being a mother is probably one of the greatest responsibilities that you can have as a human being. You help shape a life in the world and, even though I've done a lot of things, I feel like me being a mom is the most important thing, and really the most important effect that I've had on black history because I'm shaping them [children] for the future. It’s helped me grow a lot. Knowing that they're watching me. Trying to nurture people in the community. I just feel like that's just who I am – being able to help other people. That's how we continue to keep our race growing and moving. And it does, it takes a village. We all inspire and help one another.

How do you leave your mark as a black person?

Janae: I'm a Washington, DC police officer so I definitely feel like I contribute to Black History because for one, there's a lot of things that are sometimes misconstrued, and also sometimes it's truthful about police in the world today, but I try to make a difference by showing that all police officers are not the same. I have conversations with people when they ask why we do certain things, or if they feel like they're being done wrong, I listen to them and I give them feedback, and I tell them the reason why I'm doing things or I understand their point of view, but this is why this is happening.

Two older women at a dining room table

Nana Williams: Kamala Harris being the vice president, everybody has a whole different tone, making sure that we understand there is hope. Never give up hope. There is a future, and it’s closer than they may know. I always thought that there were better days ahead.

Nancy Olumekor: The church has brought us information on health and disparities in the Black community: be informed, be faithful, and be healthy. The very first week, we talked about the myths of vaccines and health disparities in the Black communities. One of the main talking points was, stress is a predominant theme in low-birth-weight babies for African American women. And that stress is a predominant theme for African Americans in America.

How do you feel you are leaving your mark as a Black person?

NO: I try to encourage people to live in the community that they're in, but not forget where they came from, because that's the most important thing. You got to know who you are and where you came from, and you don't hold the mistakes of the past against people. You take that information and you use it to empower you to do better.

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