Black History Month: Education and Identity

The interviewee of this piece has requested to remain anonymous. Out of respect for their wishes, I will refrain from any mention of their name, schools they attended, and any reference to inherently personal information. I find it incredibly important to thank my partner and recognize the time and intellectual labor that she dedicated to the interview as well as her willingness to review the writing process of this article until it reached her approval.

It’s Black History Month, and I find myself torn between what to write about. Audre Lorde? The epidemic of violence committed against Black trans women? The prison industrial system which stands as the continuation of slavery? While I love Audre Lorde, loathe the thirty-five-year-old life expectancy for trans women of color in the United States, and long to bring down the prison industrial system, I stand outside of it all. So, I decided to ask my partner if she would be comfortable with an interview about her own thoughts on Black history. It was important, as a white lesbian interviewing a Black, queer woman, to focus on questions which did not solicit emotional labor often asked of Black women when telling white people about their experiences. For brief context: her roots trace back to the Deep South where her great-grandparents lived before moving west. Raised mostly by her Black mother while her Black father served in the Navy in San Diego, California, she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. [1]

I started by asking her “What sort of Black history did you learn in school?” She recalled teachers talking about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. When slavery was taught in class, her white teacher would make direct eye concact with her and she remembered thinking “look anywhere else, please.” She learned about Black history that wasn’t written by white men from her older family members who were educated on Black history as their culture and not a chapter out of a textbook. My partner recalled how her aunt’s house had Black art and styles of paintings on the walls, which she didn’t see anywhere else. As a young child, she looked up to Martin Luther King Jr. with a particular appreciation for his pursuit of education, noting how she wanted to skip grades in high school like he did. What further caught her interest was that King collaborated with white people, something my partner could relate to, “because, you know, my best friend was white.” When speaking about the history of the Civil Rights movement, she said, “people forget that it happened,” she says, “but there’s so much more to Black history, like redlining which is just continued systemic discrimination against Black people by stopping them from living in certain areas.” [2] My partner noted how many Black people who became well-known in the Civil Rights movement or in academia were light or fair skinned. She spoke about how many women faced violent discrimation on city buses, especially in the Deep South, before Rosa Parks was finally selected to be the face of the bus boycott.

When I asked her, “What is Black history to you?” she replied, “I feel like Black history, just like other histories, should be celebrated every month. There’s a month for it now because a lot of our history was taken away due to slavery. Almost like it makes up for the suffering.” Learning and reading were early passions of hers; therefore, school inevitably became a part of her identity. As a Black, queer woman with college degrees in Biology and Religious Studies, she considers the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against desegregation in 1954 a huge “milestone” in Black history. At her commencement ceremony for the College of Biological Sciences at the university we attended, she recalled being “one of between five to ten Black students I saw walk across the stage, out of at least five hundred students”. In science classes, other students thought that she was in the wrong room or assumed that she was a student-athlete. She sarcastically quoted statements such as, “it’s 2019, we are way past discrimination,” from fellow students. The same week someone would see her in a lecture hall and find themselves confused, convinced they must have accidentally walked into a sociology class. Again, with pointed sarcasm, she said, “God forbid there are Black people in STEM classes at this university.” [3]

 The final question posed was, “What do you think the importance of teaching Black history is?” After a long pause, she responded, “Specifically in the states, it’s important to teach every part of history that the U.S. has had and Black history is a huge part of that.” After the genocide committed by Anglo colonizers against Native Americans, the land was abused by the United States and the “history in this country was built on the backs of slaves and immigrants.” It is not a Black person or the Black community’s responsibility to educate others (primarily white people) on their experiences and/or ways of moving through a white supremacist nation. Therefore, if you are not Black and if you have the means to do so, take the time to educate yourself on Black history this month and beyond. Books, movies, poems, artwork and more created by Black people are one place to start, but remember that Black history is infinitely larger than a single month out of the year and found in every aspect of American culture.

Below are some recommendations for reading and viewing.


Notes:

[1] San Diego, California, is roughly five percent Black by population. She was raised primarily in North Park.

[2] On redling, she recommends The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Written by Richard Rothstein, published in 2017.

[3] STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

Featured photo courtesy of, https://www.instagram.com/p/zte8Rcjf6x/


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

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