“What Does Black History Month Mean to You?” by Shawn Robert Johnson

Black History Month for me is a chance to shed the spotlight on our Black community. Every year during the month of February our Black community is able to highlight the history of how all Black folks and our allies endured unjustifiable pain and suffering in the past. Yet, we overcame it all and are still standing strong today. This month also magnifies how we are still making progress to create a better present and future for the culture of our communities.

When I think about the Million Man March organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the the 1960’s, I’m awestruck because so many from our Black community and so many from the other races came out to support our cause. That was a monumental time in our history to demand change.

I was a kid when my patents told me that I already had two strikes against me in life just because I was Black. That created a determined mindset in me as I grew up. I felt I always had to work extra hard in order to prove myself, and to show that I was capable of accomplishing anything in life the same as any other person from another race.

It’s sad because, at an early age, Blacks are exposed to so many prejudices just because we’re Black. We’re told by our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and elders, “Act normal when you go to the store,” or, “It’s hard to get a job when you’re Black.” Or, some other saying that sets young Black children several feet behind the starting line so to speak. So, growing up, I felt that I was going to be scrutinized at all times just because of my skin color.

Now that I’m in my mid thirties, I see how Black History Month highlights the progress my culture has made over time and the work that still needs to be done for our people. We can all have a better world where it’s about the individual character of a person and not about race at all. There is still too much separation between the Black communities and other races, and we need to close this gap for equality of everyday life.

I had the opportunity to ask several individuals about what Black History Month meant to them, and in turn I learned and appreciated much from their responses.

First, I spoke with “S7,” a fellow prisoner from the Monmouth County area, who wants to only use his nickname, and he stated, “To me, Black History Month means – in light of George Floyd situation – change had been a long time coming. It has finally been shown and proven through social media and cell phone cameras that Blacks are treated differently. It’s about time for change.”

My mother, Mrs. Shawn Johnson, certainly had impacting words to share on our phone call, “Black History Month is a celebration of our ancestors and our culture. It is a month that allows us to celebrate the uniqueness of all the things Black community has accomplished throughout many centuries.”

“Main,” who wants to be identified with his nickname as well, from Newark, New Jersey, briefly stated, “I appreciate Black History Month, but we shouldn’t have to wait for a specific month to celebrate our history.”

Also from Newark, Omar “K.O.” Alston added, “For me, Black History Month is about holding on to our history for our place in [human] history and our place in time.”

Kenneth Duckett, who is from Orange, New Jersey, articulated, “To me, Black History Month means there is no one particular month for Black History. We created history for all year round from the beginning of civilization. If you look at history from Africa, Blacks have been tied to every genealogical part of creation, even though we don’t get credit for it – especially in America!”

When speaking with Keith Cuff from Camden, New Jersey, he expressed, “Black History Month means our freedom, our equal rights, fairness, and support from others that may not even be Black.”

Lastly, I spoke with Carnell from Atlantic County, who briefly added, “Black History Month is to celebrate our ancestors, to celebrate us and our Black heritage.”

I believe Black History Month is a time to pay homage to all our ancestors and their allies who paved the way for us through the plights and pains they’ve suffered. Their suffering made our daily lives better and gave the Black community a chance for an equal living experience. Black History Month signifies something different and special to everyone, however, the community seems to be finding a way where Blacks can live in this world equally as does every other race.

By: Shawn Robert Johnson SBI#000732464C

Shawn Robert Johnson is incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP). He is a participant of CAPTIVE VOICES WRITING PROGRAM cohort at NJSP. He is a writer/poet & artist. You can see his writings on, and