Editor’s note: During Black History Month the focus is usually on historical figures who loomed larger than life, paving the way for the progress we experience today. But black history isn’t just about telling stories of our past. History is being made every day and has been made throughout our lives; it’s not just in books. It walks among us. So this month The Root is asking a group of writers to tell us about the personal and pivotal events from their own lifetimes in a series we call My Black History. Writer Danielle C. Belton is 37 years old.
Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ Video: Dec. 2, 1983
I’ve always felt sorry for people who discovered Michael Jackson only after he was older and scandal-prone. Since I was born in the 1970s, I got to enjoy the King of Pop in his prime, falling in love with him just like nearly everyone in the world after his best-selling album Thriller dropped. My sisters and I copied all his dances. I went through not one, but two Michael Jackson dolls. A giant poster of Jackson in a brown leather jacket hung on our bedroom door. But it was the premiere of the “Thriller” video, which we watched over and over, on MTV that stuck with me the longest because I was utterly terrified of it.
I loved the song and dance immensely but would hide whenever the long-form horror-film version of the video would come on, and it came on a lot, since MTV would just rotate “Thriller” again and again, to my horror and my older sister’s delight. I still kind of don’t like the long-form video (even though it’s more funny than scary to me these days), but this album solidified how black American music would come to dominate the pop scene for years, continuing to influence it greatly today.
Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaigns: 1984, 1988
Another person who, sadly, only got more complicated with time and embarrassing indiscretions, Jesse Jackson wasn’t always “messy Jesse.” In fact, when I was a child the rhyming preacher was a charismatic political figure who embarked on two failed but historic presidential runs. Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—the idea of bringing together different ethnic minorities, the poor and working class, gays and lesbians, and white progressives—to create a progressive power base was an idea that stuck. You can still see it in what consists of the Democratic Party’s base and in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Jackson, obviously, didn’t become our first black president, but he created a path and a coalition that would eventually make that possible.
Denise Huxtable Goes to College: TV’s A Different World, Sept. 24, 1987
Although The Cosby Show was the game changer by presenting black upper-middle-class life, it was its spinoff, A Different World, that took things to the next level, engaging in serious social issues while highlighting the fellowship and hijinks at a historically black college. The Cosby Show didn’t have many special episodes, but A Different World was almost like one long special episode bookended by tales of friendship and romance. In the show’s six-season run it tackled apartheid, sexual assault, racism, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, war, sexism, stereotypes, sexual harassment and the Los Angeles riots, and that’s just what I remember. I’m sure I’m forgetting a special episode in which animal cruelty and environmentalism got their moments.
Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale: 1992
In my lifelong quest to be an author, one of my biggest early influences was the cultural bombshell of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. Every girl and woman I knew read the book. I was only a freshman in high school when I got my hands on it, so some of the themes went over my 14-year-old head, but there was no denying its long-lasting power—creatively and economically. The book was a juggernaut that sold 3 million copies by 1995 and gave the world a look into the lives of professionally successful, but unlucky-in-love black women in their 30s—a theme that is still touched on today in everything from half of Beyoncé’s musical catalog to TV shows like Being Mary Jane.
The O.J. Simpson Verdict: Oct. 3, 1995
For the record, I absolutely hated every minute of the O.J. Simpson trial, but everything about it dominated our attention in 1995. The trial was live on TV all day, every day. My parents, a pair of news junkies, watched coverage of it obsessively. But the thing I remember most about it was the end. There was this fear that O.J., who was hardly a hero of the African-American cause, would be convicted of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, and riots would erupt similarly to what had happened after the Rodney King verdict. But that case involved historic tensions between the Los Angeles Police Department and the African-American community. Simpson was a seemingly untouchable superstar athlete, a Hertz Rent-a-Car hurdler who wasn’t known for being politically or socially active in the black community. It was less about solidarity and more of an exciting social experiment: Can wealth beat historical racism?
The moment the verdict came down, I was in trigonometry class with a teacher who was equally disgusted by all the O.J. fever. To the chagrin of my classmates, he refused to turn on a radio or TV as other teachers had done in their classes. Not that it mattered, since the minute the verdict did come out, some random kid went running down the halls, Paul Revere-style, screaming, “Not guilty! Not guilty!” Most of the black students at my integrated school celebrated, while our white classmates sat in stony silence. I don’t know how many of those black kids actually thought O.J. was innocent, but whatever affinity they had for him didn’t last. Simpson is currently languishing in prison over a different offense, and nobody, black or otherwise, seems to care.
The Million Man March: Oct. 16, 1995
When Louis Farrakhan called for a national summit of black men in Washington, D.C., to speak on the issues plaguing the African-American community, it was inspiring to me. Although some were upset that that call to Washington was primarily for men, others, like teenage me, didn’t really mind. Black women have been at the forefront, in the background, handing out the fliers and holding everyone’s hand in every facet of our fight for equality, from Dorothy Height to Fannie Lou Hamer, all the way back to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. When you’re in a war, you can’t exactly get picky about the gender of the troops who come to fight. But the Million Man March was built as something meant to help black men work on themselves. “Couldn’t hurt!” my mom said. The images from that day were amazing. It was inspiring to see so many black men come together out of concern for themselves and us.