The archives. A place of stillness and silence, yet paradoxically, a place where perfectly curated documents tell the story of movement, of diaspora, of the sonic beauty of Black life through history.
As a professor and researcher for over a decade, I spent countless hours in the archives at the Schomburg Center for Black History in the heart of Harlem, New York, excavating stories of Black life from ledgers, letters, and photographs. As I combed through the documents, from personal communication between two thinkers to the editorials written by ordinary Black citizens to challenge repressive laws, I was careful to admire the words and the meaning behind them.
But I would get lost in the photographs. The images of children and educators in the once segregated Panama Canal Zone who – through sport and education – cultivated collective meaning beyond their immediate conditions. Those photographs, more than the words, told a vivid story and one built on the humanizing characteristics of relationships, community, and joy.
I share this remembrance today as we begin our annual celebration of Black History Month for several reasons. First, because it is a story – albeit brief – of the Black Diaspora across the Americas.
But second, because it is a story of heterogenous Blackness itself, a story of refusal, of unexcavated or little-told narratives, of Black history, and of joy.
When early 20th-century Black intellectual Carter G. Woodson provided us with the framework for what was then Negro History Week and now Black History Month, he did not imagine it as a chance to retell the story of American life in color. It was instead a reauthoring and rescripting of Black communities and Black personhood through the lens of Black folk.
While many of us have been socialized into Black History through once-a-month projects on Black inventors, athletes, and artists whose stories are often contextualized within oft-sanitized narratives of struggle, oppression, exclusion, and resistance, it is important to recognize that such approaches are often static and unnuanced. It is, on the whole, an incomplete retelling of Black life, lacking much of what I saw in those photographs in the archives.
The relationships, community, and joy are vital to telling a more holistic narrative of Black history and Black present. Those descriptors, among a myriad of other emotions, assign a more complex story of Black humanity that the textbooks and project printouts fail to capture. That is not to say that we should disregard the usual tension-filled narratives at the expense of acknowledging joy. To do that would also be disingenuous to Black history.
So as the USL and the broader soccer community in the United States celebrate Black History Month this February, I encourage us to embrace complexity and nuance. See this as an opportunity to reflect on relationships, community, and joy. Because, ultimately, that is what the game should be about.
This month, let’s utilize our platforms to recount the relationships that Black people of various backgrounds build through the game, the friendships and community we cultivate for ourselves even when we were not a part of the plans, and the drive to create opportunities for Black people to continue to influence the game across the entire ecosystem.
Of course, a simple glance at the boardrooms and the sideline benches reminds us that our game remains imperfect in many ways. But that, too, presents us with an opportunity – the opportunity to curate a different archive, one built on joy, complexity, and simply being human.
Dr. Chris Busey