As Black History Month draws to a close in a few hours, I find myself reflecting over the past 28 days – as I do annually – to determine what grade I would give myself for how the month was celebrated. I fret over whether my family attended enough events, whether the information my children was exposed to was impactful or useful, and most importantly if they remember any of it. This year I would give myself a C.
As any parent will tell you, there is so much other stuff out there competing for ones’ kid’s attention, and I often doubt how much they can retain with their little brains struggling to recall anecdotes from Martin when Monster High demands so much of their grey matter. Nevertheless, kids have a strange way of surprising you with their powers of recall. Last night, I tested Nadjah with an easy question, just to see if anything she had learned since kindergarten had stuck.
“Who was the first Black woman to be arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus,” I quizzed. This was an easy one. Ask any third grader this same question, and they will invariably answer with an excited ‘Rosa Parks’!
But Nadjah is in fourth grade.
“Rosa Parks,” she said confidently.
“Wrong,” I replied.
“Wait…what? No! It’s Rosa Parks, Mommy!”
I nodded. “Yes. That’s what they told you in school, because that’s what certain people want us to believe and accept…but it’s not true.”
I went on the tell her that the first Black woman to be arrested for sitting at the front of the bus/not giving up her seat was a 15 year old girl named Claudette Colvin. Though both women were summarily arrested for their “crimes”, it was a full 9 months after Ms. Colvin had been arrested first that Mrs. Parks would commit the same crime. Nadjah wanted to know why she didn’t learn about Claudette Colvin instead, and I was more than happy to tell her. It was the first step in erasing my shame for my part in erasing key elements of Black history.
“The SCLC – Martin Luther King’s organization – did not think Claudette Colvin would be a “good symbol of defiance” for the unjust bus laws in the South,” I told her. “They thought she was too dark, and she was also a soon to be unwed mother. (I left out the bit about her being impregnated by a married man. I’m not ready for conversations about statutory rape just yet.) Rosa Parks was married, lighter … and therefore prettier… and had the prestige of working for the NAACP. They felt she would be a better face for the cause.”
“Well that’s just stupid. Wasn’t the point of the Civil Rights Movement to protect people who had darker skin in the first place?” she seethed. This was a good segue into the issue of colorism in the Black community. I made a few statements on the issue that made her lip curl.
“I wish I could just go back in time and slap a lot of people,” Nadjah lamented. I told her I’d often wished the same. She then went on to declare this: “Just because someone made a mistake, doesn’t mean that they can’t help make a difference. It shouldn’t have mattered that she was a pregnant teen…even if it was awkward.”
Yes. Yes! I cheered inwardly and sent her on her way, reminding her to remember Claudette Colvin’s name.
The history we have been and are being fed in this country – and the world over, really – is a sham. It is a bleached down, candy coated version of events, made digestible for species that now has the same capacity for remembering as a gold fish. Time and again, we have found African history (and African American history, by extension) white washed to fit the 21st Century imagination. The horrid story put out by Jezebel a few months ago describing Saartjie Baartman’s captivity and sexual exploitation as a girl “looking to travel and monetize her body in the process” is only the latest in a trend to downplay the true horrors that came hand in glove with colonialism and slavery. What’s worse is when Black people perpetuate these outright lies because it makes us feel a little better and a lot less ashamed. I no longer want to belong to that camp.
I realized in early February that I had failed my children by not giving them a complete picture of their Black experience in America and in the world at large. We were at our local library and the Griot Society was hosting an Are you Smarter Than a Griot session. People of all ages were encouraged to participate, so even my 4 year old got a chance to come up to the podium to answer a number of questions. When one very pretty 5th grader took her turn at the podium, she was asked this question:
“Ancient Africans were astronomers, architects and mathematicians. True or false.”
She crinkled her nose, looked up at the sky and thought for a minute.
“No…that’s actually true,” said the moderator.
She raised her eyebrows in surprise and took her seat. She shared the same look of surprise that clouded my children’s countenance. This is how I know I have failed.
My children think that Europeans came to Africa and took away slaves. Nothing could be further from the truth. European slave traders and their African allies took away hairdressers, soldiers, princes and princesses, fiancés and nursing mothers. They took away little boys who loved to practice their aim with catapults and 16 year old girls who were to celebrate their rights of passage into womanhood. They stole the lives of people like me and you and turned them into slaves. This is what I must impress upon my children.
I am now trying to do better with presenting history – not just Black history – to my kids so that when folks say things like “Thomas Jefferson had a love affair with Sally Hemmings”, they can respond with reasons, and confidently so, as to why that was highly implausible as Sally Hemmings had no agency over her body as a Black female slave. What was she supposed to tell the old goat that was married to her half-sister in the face of his advances? No? Denying a white man his “rights” was a recipe for death and/or dismemberment. But doesn’t the idea that Thomas Jefferson really loved her make you feel better about her repeated rapes? This is part of that white washing we discussed earlier.
More importantly for me though is for my children to understand that our history as Africans/African Americans does not begin with slavery and end with Barack Obama becoming president. They should know that we are connected by blood with the Haitian, the Bajan , the Brazilian as well as the Georgia native. They are our cousins. There should never be a doubt that their ancient ancestors were medical practitioners or healers, skilled craftsmen and women, and architects who built tremendous palaces…because this was all true. The average person believes that there were no buildings over the height of one storey constructed in Africa outside of Egypt until the Europeans came along. This is another lie that I have perpetuated by not taking the initiative to introduce it into conversation.
I want us to know the truth, in all its beauty and blemishes. I think we must begin to speak the truth about ourselves, our past and our future, whether it is bitter or sweet.