Black History Month 2015: Reflections from the Textbooks to the Streets

Black History Month in the United States is an interesting thing. As a kid, I was never too keen on it. After all, we always had the same projects, and heard about the same few people over and over again. It just seemed so formulaic. Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. Our teachers were required to teach these few morsels of history to a bunch of kids who didn’t seem to care for it. We completed our obligatory reports on the same few faces, and called it a day.

My mother knew better than to leave my Black history education up to the public school system. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but almost every Saturday for an extended period of time, my mother shipped us off to the Afrikan Poetry Theater on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York. I remember that the history classes were divided up by age, and for my age group, it was me and one other little girl, sitting together on a single couch in front of a teacher who gave us hours and hours of Egyptian history. I learned all about the different Gods, kings and queens, embalming practices and even hieroglyphics. At the end, all the kids and adults would gather in a big room and sing a few songs studded with Swahili and then we’d go home. I didn’t particularly care for it. Years later, I realized why. It felt forced and I didn’t feel connected to any of the material. I didn’t understand why I should feel proud, after all, I was just a little kid. None of my other classmates had to do any of this stuff. They were more than happy to learn about the same people, one month a year, once a year.

I don’t think I started to understand the implications of Black history until about the fifth grade. We went on a class trip to Washington, D.C., and we went to a museum that featured Black history, including slavery. I don’t remember the museum’s name, but inside there was a dark room with a recreation of a slave ship. We all went through it really wide-eyed and quiet. When we came out that room, my mother (who was a chaperone) was crying.  That’s when I figured out that Black history can affect people today.

When I was in junior high school, we had to do another report on a Black history figure. But this time, our teacher was a Black woman (previously they had mostly been White women, with a few notable exceptions). She made us write down a list of three different famous Black figures and she would pick which one we should do a report on. Wait, what? So of course, I picked two easy ones and a slightly more obscure one. Guess which one the teacher picked? I had to find a book on Ethel Waters, and it wasn’t easy. Why was it so hard to find information on other famous Black artists, scientists, and engineers? Oh that’s right, few people cared about even offering that information to us. Eventually, I did find a book on Waters, but not without a lot of searching.

Since I grew up in a predominately Black neighborhood, I didn’t really understand what diversity was until I got to high school. I loved it. There were so many kinds of different people of many races and ethnicities. Finally seeing people who didn’t look like me is what gave me much more pride about who I was. I finally realized that our history was rich, and not necessarily the same as everyone else’s. They had their own history that they were supposed to learn, and love, and appreciate. It was a beautiful thing.

But when I got to college, it changed again. My graduating class (at the time of enrollment) was 1% Latino and 2% Black. In a class of roughly 1,000 people, this meant that there were about 10 Latinos and 20 Blacks in a single class. There were more on campus (from the other classes) but not very many. And then I cam across something even more remarkable: some of the other Black students were upset that I wouldn’t automatically be drawn to them and be a part of their clique. At the time, I felt like I had been spoiled by the amount of diversity I had from my high school years. Was I only supposed to hang out with other Black people? I’m not sure that was the way it was supposed to be.

Being the only Black student in a many of my classes offered different challenges. While there were micro-aggressions from time to time, I noticed that for the most part, no one paid attention to me. Or, at least it felt that way. I felt lost that no one understood my struggle, and the only ones who did made me feel alienated. It was a weird time. But I was in college to learn, so I did my best to learn as much as I could. After graduation, it was off to the real world.

In the real world, I encountered the same feelings I had in college, but on a much larger scale. More and more, I felt connected to the Black experience, because I finally understood what it meant. With the explosion of the Internet from years earlier, it was much easier to access information on Black history. Low and behold, those artists, scientists, and engineers I never learned about before, had the same struggles I did. Upon this new information, I finally got the entire picture of how disconnected we can really be without proper guidance. Information of what it was really like to grow up Black in this country was largely hidden from us. It wasn’t just marching in Washington. It wasn’t just desegregating a all-White school. It wasn’t just water cannons at lunch bars, and burned and lynched black and brown bodies.

It was more than just a singular experience punctuated by high profile events. What did Rosa Parks have to deal with before she got tired and didn’t move from her seat on the bus? What was it like when Langston Hughes left Columbia University? What was it like before Charles Drew figured out blood transfusions?

What did they have to deal with before they became famous for the contributions that they made to our society?

For me, Black history month is learning about, connecting with, and appreciating all the sacrifices that the ones before us made. We may not know all of them, but we can learn that we are not alone in our struggle, and that we have a long way to go. We are the ones responsible for educating our children, friends, families, and colleagues about our experience. Positive changes to our collective experience is not just made in the big events, but the little ones as well.

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