In celebration of Black History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on black history and culture, as well as on broad issues of racial and social justice. Like a good conversation with friends after a good meal, we have not attempted to steer the conversation in any direction but instead will seek to enjoy the richness of the ideas. Please therefore curl up with a warm blanket during this extended cold snap and enjoy the conversation with us.
Many of us have seen various posts on social media during the past few weeks regarding Black History Month. One caught my eye a few days ago. It said, “Slavery is not African and Black history, it’s an interruption of African and Black history. Let’s be clear, slavery and colonialism is European history!”
This post resonated with me instantly and I shared it on Facebook. As I continued to reflect on it in the days that followed, I traveled back in time. I traveled more than 40 years into my past to 4th grade (circa 1977 or 1978). I was the target of what I would now call a microaggression and it has stuck with me ever since.
For two and a half years I attended a Catholic school in Brooklyn, New York which was in Gerritsen Beach, a neighborhood that was exclusively white. The school matched the demographics of the neighborhood, with the exception of a few Black and brown students who attended. To this day I recall vividly my teacher, Mrs. Tennyson, discussing slavery in class and what now seems the almost instantaneous reaction of my classmates. At the first mention of slavery I watched many heads turn to look at me as I sat in the back of the classroom. I remember thinking to myself, “I was not a slave, my parents were not slaves, why are they looking at me?” Looking back, it might in part have been a matter of timing. The miniseries “Roots,” with its stark depictions of slavery’s brutality, had debuted in January 1977. Although I was less than 10 years at the time, I watched very episode. Indeed, more than half of all American households watched the final episode, and in my opinion there was a tremendous increase in awareness of slavery and its horrors in the public consciousness as a result.
Forty years later, the Facebook post reminded me of how confused I felt about why at the mere mention of slavery several of my classmates felt the need to look at me. I don’t know if it was out of sympathy, guilt, or something else. What I do know is that I didn’t like it, in part because I was the only African American in the classroom. I did not have the language for what I was experiencing then, but I now can say that I was being “othered,” singled out as different from my classmates, and not for the first (or last) time. The actions of several of my classmates were part of a larger narrative, one that is not uncommon for young people to believe, as well as many adults: the narrative that the meaning of Blackness in America is not just shaped but exhausted by slavery.
Slavery in the United States is an ugly and horrible part of our history as a nation. It is part of Black history, but it is not our history solely, nor is it our sole history. But for many white people, including white children, when thinking about Black history, slavery is the first thing that comes to mind. The history of African American people in this nation includes slavery. It’s a critical part of our history. That should never be denied. Our history also includes Jim Crow segregation and the subsequent fight for civil rights and voting rights. (A fight that sadly still must be fought today.) But Black history also includes the disproportionate role of HBCUs in producing African American doctors. Black history includes notable scientists such as George Washington Carver. Black history includes the appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, the elections of Barack Obama as president and of Kamala Harris as vice president. Black history will include Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who was at the forefront of inventing one of the COVID vaccines; and Lloyd Austin, who recently became the first Black Secretary of Defense.
Black history is often viewed as a constant battle with oppression and trauma. That framing can prevent some from seeing the joy that is a part of Black history as well. To be clear, I draw strength from knowing that my ancestors had to endure things that I will never have to endure and that I am in many ways their wildest dreams come true. I draw strength from the resilience that African Americans have constantly had to demonstrate on the land where our nation sits since before its official founding as a nation.
I had the pleasure of visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2017. The experience begins deep underground in crowded spaces that tell the story of slavery in the United States, but that’s only part of the museum. Most of the museum is not about slavery. It tells a more comprehensive story about the African American experience in the United States, of which slavery was a key part, but not the only part. I wish that my classmates in Brooklyn had known that.
If 4th-grade Me had had the confidence and the language to express my thoughts that I have developed over the past four decades, I might have stared right back at my classmates. I might have explained that since white people were the enslavers and the ones responsible for slavery in the United States, rather than looking at me with possible pity, perhaps they should look at each other and think about the roles played by some of their ancestors in supporting slavery and perpetuating the continued oppression of African Americans. If I could travel back in time, Adult Me would tell their parents to make sure that their children’s conception of Black history doesn’t start with slavery and end with Martin Luther King Jr. I would advise them of the harm some of their children caused to me by subtly and not so subtly reminding me that I was the only African American student in the class. I would encourage them to talk to their children about how to make those who are different from them feel welcome in their presence. Staring at the lone African American classmate when slavery is mentioned is not the way to do that.
Thankfully, the alternatives are pretty straightforward. Sit with them at lunch, or invite them to hang out after school or on the weekend. Those are the kinds of responses to race that make us all a bit more free.
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By: Amelious N. Whyte, Jr., Ph.D.
Director, Public Engagement, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota Twin Cities