Even before concerted efforts to stifle education and conversations around slavery and racism, we were often presented with a limited picture of Black history: The long, vast, varied history of people classified as the singular monolith of their skin color — distilled and oversimplified into a handful of names, dates and places to be trotted out every February like clockwork.
There is so much more to Black history than we have been taught. There is so much more to the history that we have been taught.
We learn about Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We know Tubman for her work with the Underground Railroad, but not that she lived a long, full life after the Civil War, including joining the women’s suffrage movement and founding a nursing home.
We know Bridges for being the first Black child to integrate Louisiana schools; but we forget she is alive and well and still a prolific civil rights activist.
We know Rosa Parks for being the face of the Montgomery bus boycotts.
But long before there was Rosa Parks, there was the Women’s Political Council, which had been fighting to desegregate transportation for years and had organized the first bus boycott. That 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith were each arrested (separately) for challenging segregation on Montgomery’s buses. Or that it was the WPC that called for the boycott after Parks’ arrest and that MLK Jr. joined later. Or that the Montgomery bus boycotts lasted over a year. That it was the hundreds of Black women who organized and walked miles upon miles in lieu of using public transportation that made it a success. Or that it was nearly 10 years between this watershed moment and the 1965 Civil Rights Act.
We know MLK Jr. for being the face of the civil rights movement, and especially for his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But we don’t learn about Bayard Rustin: King’s right-hand man who turned King into a pacificist and organized the March on Washington — and who was an openly gay Black man in a time when it was dangerous to be either, let alone both.
We don’t learn about the successful Black Wall Street and its subsequent destruction in the 1921 Tulsa massacre: A thriving, prosperous Black neighborhood called Greenwood that was burnt to the ground overnight, destroying homes, businesses, churches and generations’ worth of wealth.
Our U.S. History classes rarely reach Reconstruction, and if they do, they forget to tell us how Black people (though mostly men) became literate land owners with the power to vote and became politicians who served in state legislatures. Until President Andrew Johnson revoked freed slaves’ land, giving it back to its white owners, and allowed states to enact a litany of suppressive laws.
Black history should not be confined to a few famous faces and relegated to one month a year. It must be interwoven into our history lessons, because it is an intrinsic part of our history. Black history is American history, and we must treat it as such.