When we think about Black history, most of us think about the marches, protests and dignified resolve of our civil rights heroes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks have become beloved symbols and confirmation of our so-called acceptance into the American Dream. Then there’s the romanticized beauty in the strength of our ancestors who faithfully endured and fought back against the horrors of slavery. We love to quote Harriet Tubman, “I would have been able to free a thousand more slaves if I could only have convinced them that they were slaves.” We love to wear the strong, defiant image of Malcolm X on our T-shirts. But do we ever ask ourselves, “What history are we making today?” Do we believe that our struggle ended when we elected the first Black president of the United States? When Oprah Winfrey became a billionaire? Or because there was diversity at the Oscars? Do we believe that there’s no more strides to be made? If there are, who’s to make those strides?
Our Grandparents’ Stories Are the History Behind the History
Most of us have sat at our grandparents’ knee and listened to the stories of their youth. We laughed with amusement at the cost of a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, or a gallon of gas. Our imaginations would attempt to take us back to a time in rural Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and the Carolinas when times seemed hard but full of love and laughter. In these stories, I’ve often waited to hear about where Grandma was in the 60’s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through the neighborhoods of Chicago to campaign for fair housing. I wondered if Granddaddy had ever ventured into one of Muhammad’s Temples. Did they ever use the ‘Whites Only’ water faucet in weary protest of a system of dehumanizing discrimination and prejudice? Where were they when Gospel music was rhythmically budding from the heart, soul and pain of our existence? Although I relished in the stories of family, traditions and their personal struggles and victories, I was somewhat disappointed in what I thought was a lack of involvement. In my own arrogant ignorance, I asserted that if I had been around when the monumental landmarks of our history were being made, I would have been a soldier at the forefront of the fight. I would have been that Afro-adorned Sister with my left hand raised in solidarity with my Brother Huey P. Newton. I would have marched with pride through the Harlem streets in 1920 with Marcus Garvey and the U.N.I.A. I would have, with no uncertainty, immersed myself in the artistic explosion of the Harlem Renaissance had I been around at that time. I found the stories of my grandparents plain. They lacked glamour and intrigue. I didn’t understand that their stories were the history behind the history.Their stories were part of the process.
The Unspoken Heroes Are Still Planting Seeds of Change
History is cyclical and overlapping. So, as one revolutionary is changing the world, another is being born into a family of 11 siblings, nurtured by his mother and fed by his father. His mind is being shaped by his teachers and mentors and his heart by the love and family and community. It was people like my grandparents who were planting seeds. They were a part of history. I just chose to not hear their story.
There is more to Black history than what we see in feature films during the month of February. There is the unwritten aspect, the unspoken heroes and the small steps that turn into big change. It’s the playful child who becomes the fearless leader, the teacher who inspires and the neighborhood mom who provides a safe space. Our history is evolving, all-encompassing and as old as the dawn of civilization. Our history is what determined our current circumstances, and the decisions we make today will determine our future. It is up to us to determine that trajectory. Everyone won’t be a Sojourner Truth, but we will all plant our seeds.
Marsha Washington was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. She attended the Chicago Public Schools and the City Colleges. As an adult, she made the choice to purchase her home and raise her two now-adult sons in her familiar Englewood community. She is a firm advocate of taking pride and ownership in her community.