At 10 years old, I was powerful. And brave. But mostly powerful. Because at 10 years old, I was able to bring an audience of 700 or so people to their feet, and, 10 years later, I can’t think of a prouder moment.
During fourth grade, I was selected to recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” for the Black History Month program at my school. The words marched off my tongue as soldiers ready for battle. My hips were in cadence with my mouth, speaking what my lips could not. For three minutes, I peeled off the skin of a 10-year-old and entered the skeleton of a woman. I was fierce.
Unfortunately, fourth grade was the peak of my theatrical achievements. And slowly, as I’ve looked around to what I’ve been exposed, Black History Months have become little more than 28 or 29 days on a calendar. I am not a black American, and I do not speak on behalf of my black peers. But I am cognizant that I do share a history that has influenced my present. And although I am no longer the same fourth grader who brought a crowd to its feet, I realize I possess another influence—an influence through words. I hope that these words challenge you to put aside negative (and destructive) attacks of this month to more deeply understand the importance of black history.
First off, you don’t have to be black to appreciate the history and contributions of black Americans. Majority, minority, immigrant or native, black history is all of our history.
The us-other dichotomy falsely sets up a binary that, in reality, is very much intertwined. Music is one avenue where we see the two mesh. Many pioneers of rock-n-roll sampled music that was produced by blacks. Little Richard, an influential black musician, laid down the foundation for rock-n-roll. Pat Boone, Elvis Presley and The Beatles sampled off Little Richard and others (think “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille” and “Please Mr. Postman”). But music sampling doesn’t stop with rock-n-roll musicians.
Elements of black history have seeped into other genres too. Beyonce, Kanye and Jay-Z produced several of their top hits by sampling off Otis Redding, Nina Simone and James Brown—all musicians and activists. Music is an important product of black history to acknowledge because it was an outlet to express tensions. Laying down the tracks was synonymous to laying down the backdrop to the political and social changes occurring in a period of violence, inequality and disenfranchisement. I’m guilty of losing myself in contemporary artists’ albums. It’s OK to enjoy them, but realize that some of the words used in our Billboard’s Top 100 were used for another purpose—to help many escape to a world that was otherwise inescapable.
Secondly, remnants of black ridicule surface in contemporary American culture, and it’s alarming how unalarming they appear. Minstrel shows were entertainment made for white audiences using black characters and white people in blackface. Characters were portrayed as lazy, tactless and ignorant, and, to the white audience, this was entertainment. Key characters of minstrel shows became staples of American tradition, such as Mammy, Uncle Tom and Pickaninny. Although black disenfranchisement legally dissolved, the social implications remain today. Have you ever eaten from a batter of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes? Or made a quick bowl of Uncle Ben’s rice? What about watched any Mickey Mouse? These are all characters that have grown up with us, on the table and on the television. Yet, the very reasons for their existence were racist, derogatory characters (Google it, if you must). These fragments of black history—American history—have become engrained in our culture, and it’s OK to enjoy them. But consider those who have suffered so you can enjoy what you consume today.
Third, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are heroes who deserve the greatest of honors. But many more than these two commonly cited leaders are members of the story. Black history is about places, organizations, court cases, bus rides, religions, freedom marches—and people. One of my personal favorite leaders is Malcolm X. Discussions about him are often truncated to his political movements and involvement. A deeper look into his life, however, shows his unwavering love and dedication to Islam. As a Nation of Islam leader for 12 years and, later, a Sunni convert, Malcolm X came from the darkest abyss to combat a double-sided marginalization. Malcolm’s intellectual courageousness, coupled with his moral courageousness, has inspired thousands of Americans—Christians and Muslims—to search for truth. The struggles of black Muslims are as real and authentic as the struggles of black Christians. To leave their history out of black history is to leave out a large part of the story.
My 10-year-old self was fierce. Her arms and legs could only move so far, but her words reached the most curious minds. And those curious minds went on to touch others. She had the courage to be so fierce because knowledge empowered her. She has Black History Month to thank for that. Unfortunately, if we do not take an active effort to really understand the history of the people who built this country on their backs, we won’t be able to move forward. The fruits we consume today are results from the past, and the music, media and grocery shelves remind us daily of that.
I look to my 10-year-old self for courage. And I encourage others to find their own way to move others toward action.
Leena El-Sadek is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.