Contributing Authors: Kimberly Henderson Baird, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney
February is nationally recognized as Black History Month. It began in 1926 as just a one-week celebration and was first observed as a month-long event in 1970. Six years later, as Black History Month was being celebrated across the county in educational institutions and cultural centers, President Gerald Ford acknowledged Black History Month during the commemoration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout history.”
When I was growing up in school in Kentucky, Black History Month consisted of a paragraph’s worth discussion of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Depending on the class, there may have been an additional shout out to Muhammed Ali, and Garrett Morgan (the inventor of the traffic light and smoke hood) because they were from Kentucky. My teachers, generally not persons of color, would end the short discussion declaring how far we had come from those days. If you did not know your history, or do any additional research, you would think that there was only a small handful of African Americans who had accomplished anything great or contributed to society and the development of the nation, and they were from many years before. Current high-achieving, successful Black men and women were rarely showcased in the celebration of Black History Month. This criticism isn’t just limited to educators. Every adult of every race must take responsibility in educating themselves and others about the value of African Americans in America.
In Kentucky, members of the Bar Association get a quarterly publication called the “Bench and Bar.” Each publication focuses on a specific topic and attorneys write articles related to that topic. Additionally, Kentucky’s law schools are highlighted, attorneys are recognized, deceased members are memorialized, proposed rule changes are given, and judicial disciplinary actions are reported. Generally, there are no persons of color who are contributing writers. A few months ago, the topic of the publication was “Women in the Law — 100 years and Counting.” Some of the featured articles were “Important Women, Important Milestones,” “The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in Kentucky,” and “Diversity and Wellness Programs Aren’t Working: Change Systems, Not People. Now one would think “as far as we’ve come,” that the publication would feature at least one Black woman. In that entire, multi-page book, not one article was written by a Black woman. One article, written by a white woman, mentioned a Black judge, and the only photos of African Americans were submitted by the UK College of Law who was acknowledging the Black Law Student Association trial team competition. And ironically, the article about diversity and wellness pointed out the lack of diversity in the workplace. What a slap in the face! We are just as intelligent, creative, talented, and experienced and deserving of recognition. As the publication was being prepared for final edits and publication, not one editor thought it strange that a focus on “diversity” only meant gender and not race or culture.
So, being the strong, resilient, make-things-happen-in-the-face-of-adversity, Black women that we are, we needed to call out this slight. A group of friends and I from law school got together and, after some serious venting, came up with a plan. One friend (formerly a prosecutor in my office) called the head of the editorial board and pointed out the error. He indicated that we could write an article in the next publication to address the omission. One friend (another former co-worker) was volunteered to author the article to showcase her beautiful writing, discussing how valuable Black women are in the field of law, and that every employer should make an effort to employ us. Then, as many Black women lawyers as were available met to take a group photo, standing in unity on the steps of the state capitol. There were judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law partners and solo practitioners. One lawyer was the head of her city’s Urban League, and even the Governor’s own Chief of Staff and Chief Legal Counsel was present (the first black woman to hold those positions simultaneously, and also another former co-worker). The photo, as well as the comradery, was absolutely amazing. We come together for a common goal, for our voices to be heard, and to remind others, especially those in leadership and areas of influence, to be more inclusive. Despite our efforts to educate the editorial board of the appearance of exclusion and omission, we recently received another publication introducing the Bar Association Board of Governors on the cover. There were 22 board members, 9 women, all white. Without addressing their qualifications or ability to serve, the appearance is disheartening; the association to which I belong and pay a lot in yearly dues does not look like me nor appear to represent me.
I still hear people complaining and asking why there is a whole month dedicated to highlighting Black history and why there isn’t a month celebrating white history. Well, to those clueless souls I say, look around. Every month, every publication celebrates white Americans. When images that do not reflect diversity continue to be shown, it appears to those that do not know better, that there are not a lot of successful, competent, experienced Black attorneys. It can be depressing and mentally draining. You are seen as “the exception” rather than the rule in the representation of success. I experience “battle fatigue” often being surrounded by people who just don’t seem to understand; having to repeatedly explain feeling left out, underappreciated, and disrespected. I constantly resist the urge to cuss at someone on a regular basis (even though I think that might make me feel better!)
To African Americans paving the way, I say, you are worthy of celebrating — in February and throughout the year. Continue to educate until things become so diverse it is second nature, and we don’t have to call it out all the time. Despite my fatigue and frustration, I must continue to be a role model to other young Black women. They cannot believe they are the exception; they are the rule. These young women must see me persevere through adversity because it builds their character and confidence and they will become the leaders in the future. And to others who think we have come so far, I say, we have such a long way to go.
Kimberly Henderson Baird is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. She is the First Assistant to Lou Anna Red Corn, Well-being Task Force member.