February’s Black History Month is a great time to expand our knowledge and understanding of the significant impact that Black Americans have had — and continue to have — in shaping this country. Often whitewashed or having its truths and perspectives misrepresented (sometimes deliberately), Black history in the United States is frequently viewed as a sidenote within a White narrative.
Black history is complex, varied and nuanced. It traverses oppression, racism, resilience, resistance, excellence, identity, power, love and joy (all resonating through the past and into today). It needs to become an all-year-round, central part of the curriculum that no longer devalues the impact that Black Americans have had. Progress and greatness in this country are not down to a few exceptions, there are many vital contributors that have played their part in moving this country forward, including some you may not have heard about before …
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first Black person in America to publish a book of poetry. Enslaved at the age of about seven, Phillis was traded and sold in Boston, Massachusetts, to John Wheatley as a servant for his wife, Susanna. Her incredible wit and intelligence were notable, so much so, that the Wheatley family decided to teach her how to read and write. A mere 16-months after being bought into domestic servitude, Phillis could fluently read English, Greek and Latin and started lessons in theology, mythology and Ancient history. Her first and only published book in 1773, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ was critically acclaimed and served as a pushback to the untrue, yet commonly peddled belief, that Black People were intellectually inferior — a preface signed by 17 prominent White men stating that Phillis was the author of her book had to be included in the print, for example. Phillis’ work was so influential within the colonies that she was asked to meet with George Washington (then the Continental Army Commander) after she sent him several poems to share her support for American Independence (while also actively opposing slavery). Phillis Wheatley was a leading Black voice in literature — you can find out more about her life and work here.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was an early civil rights leader, suffragist, educator and investigative journalist. Born into slavery, Ida found work as a teacher at 16 years of age to provide for her remaining 5 siblings after her parents and one brother died of yellow fever. In 1892 she became editor and co-owner of ‘Free Speech and Headlight‘, a hugely influential Memphis-based Black newspaper that championed the fight for racial equality, civil rights and an end to White violence. It was here she reported on lynchings in America and aimed to document and expose this kind of racial terror used against the Black community. This exposé outraged many local White people who then lead sustained threats against her life. They were so relentless, Ida had to move to Chicago for her own safety. It was there in 1913 that she set up the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black female group of its kind in Chicago, to make sure African American women were an active voice within a movement that centred White women and their fight to win the right to vote. There is so much more to discover about Ida B. Wells and the many things she accomplished in her lifetime — you can find out more about this incredible, fearless and driven woman here.
Claudette Colvin (1939-present) was just fifteen years old in 1955 when she was handcuffed and arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus for a White woman — nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. Expressing her views clearly that she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to sit in her seat, Claudette became the first Black person to actively challenge the citywide segregated bus ordinance that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A fierce proponent for civil rights and a Youth Council NAACP member, she was overlooked as a figurehead for the movement because of her young age (which lead to her significance going largely unnoticed for decades) — you can find out more about her protest here.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was an openly gay civil rights movement leader and gay rights activist. He organized the historic 1963 March on Washington, attended by approximately a quarter-million people, where Martin Luther King, Jr (MLK) gave his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. It was Rustin, a lifelong pacifist who impressed upon MLK in 1956 at a meeting about the Montgomery Bus Boycott that nonviolence should be a foundation of their approach to the civil rights movement (which was adopted). Rustin’s exceptional skills at strategizing, policy-making and supervising events became critical to mobilizing vast numbers of people within the movement, a tactic that proved important in affecting the most change — you can find out more about Bayard Rustin’s life and work here.
Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959-present) is a full-time law professor, civil rights activist and leading scholar in constitutional law, race and gender equality and critical race theory. The principles of intersectionality were established by Crenshaw over 30 years ago to focus on how issues of race, religion, class, sexuality, ability and gender, for example, often converge to create varying types of discrimination or privilege. Being a Black, gay woman, for example, possesses a number of distinct identities (race + sexuality + gender) that encounter their own prejudices (racism + homophobia + sexism) which overlap and generate diverse lived experiences of oppression. The theory of intersectionality realizes that addressing underlying societal problems cannot be achieved if the varied systems of oppression that uphold them are regarded as singular and separate. Crenshaw’s work has pushed forward our understanding of how deeply connected social issues are — you can find out more about her work here.
There is a lot more to be shared about the people included here (this was just a quick introduction). If you’ve not heard of any of these trailblazers before, I would encourage you to follow the links provided throughout this article and pursue your own research into their lives and work. There is so much to learn, honour, celebrate and commemorate during Black History Month, this is just a start …
Digital Black History Events – Smithsonian Magazine (several events available throughout February that are admission free but may require registration)
The 2021 Black History Month Virtual Festival – ASALH (many free events available and open to the public)
Contact the Department of Education (US) or find your Representatives to call for Black History to be taught nationwide at all educational levels as an evidence-based, robust, nuanced and well-resourced year-round core curriculum subject.