NYC260 cover image See all stories from issue #260, January/February 2018

[SUBSCRIBE NOW]
RK-YD image Get great stories in 'Teen Success Library'
ISBN: 9781935552017
[BUY NOW]
There’s More to Black History Than Rosa Parks, MLK, and Malcolm X
Ria Parker
headshot

I found out about Ralph Bunche, the first black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, when I was watching a video titled, What I Wasn’t Taught in School. This video grabbed my attention because in all of my history classes so far, the few black people I’ve learned about are Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. Then we spend a lot of time on slavery.

I know those people who drove our civil rights forward are important, but what about other black people who contributed to other aspects of our society like culture, arts, and government? What about black people who lived and shone during other times in our history?

youthcomm logo
  www.representmag.org

Take Ralph Bunche for instance. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for negotiating agreements between Israel and four Arab states, which according to PBS, “is unparalleled in the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

It bothers me that black children are being taught little about our race’s achievements because the history books and the curriculum exclude so many of them. That makes me feel less significant than white people, and I’m likely not the only black kid who feels this way. The fact that so much emphasis and time is spent on learning about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement seems to say that we are destined to struggle.

If we are only viewing this repetitive information about our own history, then black kids are left to wonder if that’s all we are: People who have always been discriminated against, and hated, and kept down. In contrast, we learn about white people throughout history who have been successful in so many ways. This can’t help but lower black children’s self-esteem and confidence and make them feel like they can’t aspire to greatness and don’t matter, even if this internalizing is not obvious to them.

Tupac said, “The hate U give little infants f-cks everybody.” If schools teach predominantly white history, and black history is mostly about slavery and black oppression, black children will grow up thinking that no African-American ever transcended oppression and achieved in science, the arts, and other fields. That’s not true at all.

So Many Black Heroes

I would like to learn more about Zora Neale Hurston, Esther Jones, Bessie Coleman, Huey P. Newton, Dorothy Dandridge, Thomas L. Jennings, and Dr. Shirley Jackson.

I did learn about James Baldwin in 8th grade. My teacher taught us about him even though he wasn’t part of the curriculum. If you’re not familiar with Baldwin, he was a writer and activist from Harlem who wrote about race, sex, and class distinctions.

One of my favorite books by him is If Beale Street Could Talk. I liked that this book is set in Harlem and how Fonny and Tish, a young black couple, find ways to get through hardships like when Fonny is thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Instead of portraying them as a stereotypical black family that breaks up when the man goes to jail, this family sticks together. It depicts black families in a positive way.

I also read Baldwin’s My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. Baldwin tells his nephew that society wants you to believe that your blackness makes you worthless, but don’t believe it. The only reason you’re treated like this is because of racism, and you shouldn’t have to alter your life for white people in order to be accepted in society.

If everyone learned about James Baldwin in school, and read one of these books, it would help defy the negative stereotypes about black people and make kids feel more empowered.

A Lot More to Rosa Parks

image by YC-Art Dept

Furthermore, I want to know more about the big names than the same stories everyone tells. Usually during Black History Month, I learn that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus and refused to get up. But there is a lot more to her life than that. Prior to that day, Parks was a part of the NAACP and investigated racially motivated crimes such as black women being raped by white men.

Recently, Oprah Winfrey received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. In her acceptance speech, she mentioned Recy Taylor, a young wife and mother who was abducted and raped by six white men while she was walking home from church in 1944. Winfrey continued by saying how this crime was reported to the NAACP and Rosa Parks took the lead in investigating Taylor’s case.

Although I learned about these other aspects of Parks’ life on my own, most people probably didn’t know that she’d done this before Oprah’s speech. Even though the men who raped Taylor didn’t get prosecuted, the fact that Parks worked actively to defend black women’s rights felt empowering
to me.

The more we learn about black people who made positive contributions to society, the more confident we will feel about our own abilities.

I’ve wondered how non-slave black immigrants came to the United States. Were there any? Did some come through Ellis Island from European countries? Or did we all come from Africa as slaves? For now, I will have to find out the answers to these questions on my own. When I go to college I plan to major in Afro-American studies.


Learn More About These Black Leaders

Zora Neale Hurston, an author and anthropologist who won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to conduct fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti. Read: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel, published in 1937.

Esther Jones, a singer who performed at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club under the name “Baby Esther” in the 1920s. She’s been called the original Betty Boop because the cartoon character was modeled after a white singer who had seen ZJones perform and copied her style.

Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1921. The daughter of sharecroppers from rural Texas, she had to travel to Paris to learn to fly, since U.S. flight schools discriminated on the basis of race and gender.

Huey P. Newton, a revolutionary activist and co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Watch: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a 2015 documentary about the group. Find it on Netflix, iTunes, or Amazon Video.

Dorothy Dandridge, an actress, singer, and dancer who was the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for Carmen Jones. Despite that honor, she struggled with the lack of quality roles for black actors in the 1950s and ’60s. Watch: Carmen Jones. Find it on Amazon Video, Google Play, or iTunes.

Thomas L. Jennings became the first recorded African-American to receive a U.S. patent in 1821. He invented a method called “dry scouring” that preceded today’s dry-cleaning. Read: The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity, by Patricia Carter Sluby.

Dr. Shirley Jackson became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT in 1973, in particle physics. She is currently the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

(NYC-2018-01-03)