Stop! Don’t skip this post just yet. You may be thinking, oh, I know my history. Slavery ended with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 (which, some may argue, didn’t actually free slaves in the Northern states). Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of his Lorraine Hotel room balcony in Memphis, TN. Oprah Winfrey is the first Black female billionaire after building the production empire better known as Harpo, Inc. The 9 to 0 decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 in favor of the collective represented in Brown v. Board of Education was the damning blow to the Goliath better known as Jim Crow (at least, that’s what they tell us).
Okay, touché and a two pats on the back for you. You’ve clearly stayed awake through more than one Black History Month program. Without a doubt, the heroes and sheroes listed above played a huge role in the opportunities we have today, but they have almost become pop icons because their names have been thrown around so much and with less and less impact. These names merely scratch the surface of who we are, where we come from, and the ancestors who fought, cried, and died for us to have the opportunities we have.
First, if you don’t take anything else away from this post, take this: YOUR HISTORY, YOUR LEGACY, YOUR HERITAGE DID NOT – LET ME REPEAT, DID NOT – BEGIN WITH SLAVERY! Sorry for getting worked up, but that needed to be said. Your people (assuming you’re African American) were Kings, Queens, and Pharaohs far before the first trip through the Middle Passage. So, please don’t buy into the thought that your history begins there. Once you recognize that wealth, culture, pride, and a slue of other positive attributes stem from your heritage, it gives you a different sense of pride in your being an African-American. Shouldn’t it? Be honest with me, didn’t your chest puff up a little bit? Mine did when I typed it.
Obviously, it was easiest for me to begin with “race.” (Race is in quotes because there is nothing in our DNA that tells the world to mark us as Black, African American, etc. Instead, our Four Fathers and their Four Fathers needed a way to “keep us inline” (read: inferior) so, they began this whole categorizing process – i.e. white, black, Asian, other – that we now call “race”). Don’t get me started; I could go on to write an entire book on the “race” conspiracy.
Any who, knowing your history as an African American is only the first step. After all, aren’t you a woman also? Well then, there is another body of history out there that you should be abreast of (ha, a breast of…women…sorry…I couldn’t help myself…keep reading). Less than a century ago, women in America didn’t have the right to vote. To this day, women are still paid cents to the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Images and stereotypes of woman continue to be overly sexual, emotional, and nurturing creatures hang over our heads. Do you know who Mary Church Terrell is? What about Belva Lockwood? First woman CEO? What women fought for what you seek today; an opportunity to attend higher education institutions in classes with men and move ahead of men corporate organizations?
In order to pay homage to these heroes and sheroes, learn about them. I’m asking you to dig deeper than the history books offered during your typical “Black History Month” tributes, because we have to remember that these were often written by white Americans for white Americans. You can take that to mean whatever you like, but that isn’t the history I’m asking you to brush up on. Instead, I am charging you with the task of reading from some of our greatest Black authors. Read the Talented Tenth and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of W.E.B. DuBois’ central arguments. Read the collections of letters of slaves. Watch Ironjawed Angels, the reenactment of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Discuss them with friends. Most importantly, remember that without their sacrifice, you would not have the opportunities that you have today.
Now, I know I may lose some of you in this last section, but I’m willing to do so. Some of you may have been told this in the spirit of patriotism, but if you don’t love America, go to another country ((read: go back where you came from.)) This, I believe. Have you been to a second or third world country? What is the extent of poverty you’ve seen? Have you seen oppression beyond that which you live? I haven’t, honestly, but I know that the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy in America are unmatched in many countries and cultures around the world. So, you owe to yourself and to your country to know your history as an American citizen. What’s your State’s capital? Who is your Senator? What does s/he stand for? Which President established Thanksgiving as a national holiday? Who coined the term “affirmative action?” Which women are argued to have received the first electoral votes for presidency? Yes, regardless of your party affiliation, your values, your this, your that, you need to know your history as an American. Why? Because you are an American and you have no problem practicing your freedom of speech, wearing the clothes you chose, and jaywalking in front of the police. In other countries, you would be hung for these same activities. For that, you must recognize yourself as American….for you are, an American.
I can’t tell you which part of your identity – female, Black, American – will take center stage at any time throughout your collegiate career, or any time beyond that. What I will tell you is that you NEED to know how to manage them. I can’t tell you how to or which one is most important to your success. You owe it to yourself to learn how to balance these competing identities. After all, all three parts make you who you are. Moreover, the struggles you’ll face – both blatant, and subliminal – are similar to those that similar young, Black females have faced. Knowing that history will help you understand and cope with an identity that is, well, scarce in most colleges/universities.