When I was in elementary school, we only learned about Black history during Black History Month, and only covered key figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. “What pride is there in being a descendant of slaves?” I thought. It was just a reminder that my ancestors were enslaved and suffered. My great-grandmother’s family were sharecroppers. She spent part of her childhood picking tobacco and lived under Jim Crow in the 1930s in Maryland, something that makes me sad to think about.
A Richer Black Experience
When I got to middle school, I was pleasantly surprised that my history teachers, who were predominantly White, taught us a lot about Black history. We spent an entire semester learning about police brutality toward Black people and how it relates to the Holocaust under the theme of abuses of power. We spent a lot of time on Frederick Douglass, reading his autobiography, one of my favorite books, and learning about how he escaped from slavery to become an important activist and speaker for the abolition cause.
One year during Black History Month, a Black dance troupe performed at our school, and visiting performers also danced and sang songs by famous Black artists. We still learned about injustices committed against Black people, but being treated badly wasn’t the only thing that defined our story.
When I got to high school, I participated in Junior Scholars, a program that explores Black culture at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research library in Harlem that archives the history of peoples who came from Africa. My grandmother encouraged me to sign up for the program. Since it was her idea I was resistant at first, but I ended up liking it.
I learned a lot. For instance, I discovered that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first Black woman who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Before Parks, several others did the same. One was 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. Her demeanor was more militant and she was darker-skinned than Parks. She also got pregnant as an unwed teenager. Civil rights leaders felt Parks, who was married and had fairer skin, would be better received by White audiences.
Parks was portrayed as a meek Christian by the media. She was anything but. She was actually a lifelong activist and secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
I learned that my people have a rich and complex history. When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine Black people from the past without oppression being attached to them. I thought there wasn’t much we could accomplish.
Black Women I Admire
I continued researching Black history on my own after the Schomburg program ended. I was drawn to reading about Black women in particular. One was Ida B. Wells, a journalist and educator in the late 1800s after the Civil War. She wrote articles in a newspaper she became part owner of called The Memphis Free Speech. Wells reported on racial injustices, like segregation, but she was particularly outspoken about condemning lynchings.
In 1892, when she was in her 30s, a mob burned her newspaper office after she wrote about the lynching of a friend. Fortunately she was travelling at the time and was unharmed. Despite receiving death threats throughout her life, she continued to speak out against lynching. Learning about intelligent, brave Black women like Wells made me feel proud to be Black.
I also read about Madam C.J. Walker, who in 1867 was the first in her family to be born free on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. She became an entrepreneur who created the first haircare products for Black women. She began selling them and amassed a fortune that made her one of the first female self-made millionaire in America. She donated to many organizations that worked to improve the lives of African-Americans.
Madam Walker’s story reminded me of my grandmother’s willingness to start anew amid broken marriages and broken homes.
Reconstruction and Harlem Renaissance
This year I’ve been surprised and happy that my White U.S. history teacher devotes so much time to learning about people of color. When we learn about White American history, she then reviews what was taking place at the same time in a black or Latinx community. So for instance when we learned about the culture boom during the Roaring ’20s, we also learned about the Harlem Renaissance. When we learned about the postbellum history of Reconstruction-era America, we also learned that Black people played important roles in rebuilding the South.
I think it’s important for Black students to learn that there is more to their history than just slavery. Of course we must learn about those bad moments because we can’t erase them, but it shouldn’t be the only focus. I‘m happy that I have a U.S. history teacher who is committed to teaching American history from multiple perspective.
Everyone deserves to know about the history of those who came before them, and to see positive representation. When you see people like you contributing to society positively in valuable ways, fostering innovation and social change, you feel you belong in that society. This is especially important to help minority children see that there is more to their history than oppression. When I learn about historical figures who look like me achieving great things, it shows me that a lot is possible despite the odds I may have to face.