Growing up, I was privileged to grow up in a school system where my education was mostly taught by Black people. I didn’t realize that it was a privilege until I went to college in a white environment, where white faces taught white washed history. I realized it even more when I met other people who didn’t grow up in PG County, Maryland and found out that white washed history was the normal way kids in America learned.
Learning American history from adults who were not thought of as people when this country was founded affords a different type of learning. Hearing your Black teacher’s scoffs while reading a section in a textbook about “Manifest Destiny” forces you to envision a different reality than what said textbook hopes to make you believe. Curriculum in hand, my 7th grade LSN Government teacher taught me more about the plight of Black America than the checks and balances that were supposed to keep us all “free”. Hearing him teach about the origin of the US Capitol building peaked our interests only after he told us how and why he had been arrested there 20 years prior.
It was the first time that I remember hearing about someone I admired being arrested, and for 13 year old Nicole, it put me in the middle of a paradox. To me, my government teacher was a hero. He had served in a military and fought in wars, he was the kindest man I had ever met. I often saw him buy lunch for kids who couldn’t afford it and bring coats for students he noticed didn’t have one. He certainly wasn’t a criminal. So why was he arrested?
As I continued to learn about more heroes in Black History, almost all of their stories involved being arrested, being jailed, being harassed and/or being legislated against. In order to be a hero, they had to have been saving us from something. What we don’t discuss enough is that they were trying to save us from America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably white America’s favorite Black person (outside of probably Ben Carson). It would be pretty difficult to find someone living in America in 2022 who doesn’t believe him to be a hero. If you ask why, answers may vary. But if he is a hero, that means there was a villain. That villain isn’t the police officers who shot him with water cannons or the disgruntled white teenagers who held up signs to protest desegregation. It’s not even James Earl Ray. The villain in his and many other stories is the country that required desegregation in the first place. The villain is the country that stole and enslaved his ancestors, then jailed, beat and ultimately killed him for asking for racial equality.
We recognize Black History Month in order to celebrate the achievements of Black people in history. But what we don’t discuss is that these achievements are so great because they were made in spite of systems that were made with the purpose of stifling Black achievement.
It’s such a celebratory fact that Madame CJ Walker was the first Black millionaire because she was the first person in her family born into freedom, and not only the first Black millionaire, but the first self made millionaire in America. That’s because wealth is typically (and in 1867, always) inherited, and Black people had nothing to give their descendants. When they were freed or freed themselves, former enslaved people who built the foundation of America’s economy, were left with nothing but oppression and hate. Walker’s achievements make her a hero, and her archenemy was her birthplace & it’s economy that exploited Black labor while stifling Black progress.
George Washington Carver is widely known for his achievements in science, and celebrated every February. As an enslaved child, he was known for being bright and creative. Because he left us with his words, we know that he lived a life plagued by racism. He moved to Kansas as a young man hoping to receive an education. Instead, a Black man in the town was brutally murdered after being accused of raping a white girl and George fled after townspeople made it clear that Black people weren’t welcomed. Then, after being accepted to a new college, his dreams were thwarted again once he met the man who signed his acceptance letter. “You didn’t tell me you were a negro. Highland College doesn’t accept negroes.” Still, G.W. Carver was able to become one of the most famous scientists in American history. He was able to solidify his place in history not because of America’s help, but in spite of its hate. In this hero’s story, he was able to hold back the villainous country “of the brave” yet again.
Today, as Black Americans continue to achieve, continue to grow, continue to save ourselves, the villain has not changed. It is still a foe so big that all of the achievements of Black Americans have not been able to defeat it. As Black History Month 2022 approaches, it is important that we not only teach about Black heroes, but teach about the context of their heroism. The need to have Black heroes comes from the fact that we are constantly under the thumb of our biggest foe. The foe that found its footing in 1492 is the same villain that first bought enslaved people here in 1619. It’s the same villain that continues to lead us today.