Sisters, it happened every time I stood in front of my college classroom to teach Black and Women’s history and culture.
Somebody—usually a Black somebody—would say, “If I hadda been a slave I woulda…” And I’d smile patiently while they took off on how they would have done some Black Panther, Dora Milaje-type butt-kicking to get Black people free faster.
I’d watch several other young heads nodding in agreement to this Avengers-adjacent fantasy. Then I’d take a deep breath and say with considerable love and patience, “It’s profoundly helpful to know who and what you’re talking about before you talk.”
First, I’d challenge them to see the difference between “slaves,” purchasable items, and enslaved people, human beings withstanding the ultimate assault on their humanity. Then, before turning them loose in a field of narratives and interviews from formerly enslaved people, I’d ask them the question that drove me to become an historian in the first place: “Who are we without our stories? And what does it mean if we don’t get to tell them ourselves?”
That question has got me all up in my feelings right now as we’re commemorating Black History Month and entering Women’s History Month—all while standing in an historical moment when even our right to tell our own stories and teach them to our children is under heartbreaking and soul-shaking public attack.
As a Black mom raising a Black daughter to be able to withstand the daily cuts against her basic humanity and to stand for herself, I know how critical our history and culture are to our children’s healthy identity formation, self-acceptance, pride, and sense of communal belonging.
I’m keenly aware of how that knowledge creates active empathy and understanding among children of other groups. That’s important. Because it ultimately allows for the change we want to see happen, so that our children can have the fairness, safety, acceptance, and freedom from “outsider” status and bullying that they deserve.
Who would my daughter be without freedom shapers like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, and her own grandmother who fought in the local civil rights movement of my little hometown? What would she do without culture makers like Toni Morrison, Amanda Gorman, LeVar Burton, Lizzo, or Amandla Stenberg?
To her, representation is everything. It proves that anything they can do, she can do. Brilliantly. Anyplace they can be, she can go. Further.
My daughter deserves to know who and whose she is, just like every. other. child. She deserves to know what we have contributed and built as a people in this country. Like how the now constitutionally protected rights to freedom, equality, citizenship, the vote, and equal treatment as a citizen regardless of race didn’t emerge from nature or our founding documents. They came from the constant struggle and sacrifice of our Black ancestors—often in the face of violence. Now those freedoms protect every American and inspire the world. That was us!
I taught her that our history is the threshold each of us stands on before we can cross into our futures. To not have a clear look back is to not have a clear vision forward.
As Black moms, we know that a child without a sense of self—supported by pride in our history and culture—is forced to accept false narratives about themselves, our people’s contributions, place in society, and their own worth. Our babies are forced to see themselves as the problem instead of seeing our society’s problems as the problem.
I wasn’t going to let that happen to my child, any child in my family and community, nor any young person who stepped through the doors of my classrooms. As I’ve told every child I’ve ever taught: Despite what you might see or hear, Blackness is something we live up to. Not something we have to live down.
If our children don’t know the power of the ancestors, they can never really know their own. In fact, I want all children, regardless of race, to pull deep from this well of Black resistance, resilience, persistence, brilliance, talent, innovation, and hope. Because our history reveals both paths and possibilities.
And when a young person is tempted to say, “If I woulda been a slave…” I want them to have the right to hear what I told my students:
“Just hope you would have been as strong when the lightning of the whip kissed your naked back. When the auction block was the last time you held your mate, your mama, your newborn baby. When others owned your physical and sexual body and tried to own your soul too. When your labor, brilliance and creativity did not enrich your family but others instead. Hope you were strong enough to endure, to resist, to defy, and STILL rise to carve the very meaning of American freedom from the obdurate and resistant rock of racial oppression.”
That’s the force of our history. It doesn’t just inspire—it empowers. It speaks our experiences. It uplifts our names. It defends our humanness. History doesn’t just tell our past. It protects our future. Our children. That’s why I insist it be told. By us.
Sisters, how are you using our history to empower yourself, your children, our community, everybody you love?Leave a Comment
Norma Jarrett says
Love this. I make sure the stories I write are a reflection of my heritage. My Dad made sure we knew our history. He was at the March on Washingon and at North Carolina A & T State University during the A & T Four sit ins. And he told that story again and again. (HBCU legacy). I honor my aunts now in their 80’s and 90’s and make sure their stories are not left behind. Sometimes we are so cursory from the heritage and legacy of our own bloodline. There are gems in our own legacies if we look for them.
Melvina Young says
Norma, yes to everything you said. Thank you for reading and sharing your family’s part in our collective history. Your post reminds me of how new our freedom is. It was in your father’s living experience that the battle to even be treated with respect at a lunch counter happened. It is within your aunt’s living experience that so many Black women, men, and children put their bodies on the line for our equality.
It’s so important as we build on the future our ancestors began for us that we understand that the past is not past. It’s not just a collection of stories we can tell about “back then” but a preface to our living stories now.
Marie Jones says
Your words validated my thoughts about the need to uplift my grandsons and granddaughters about knowing their past.
First, I asks them what do they know about their grandparents. I listen to assessed to determine if we have told our families stories. I shall continue to tell my families past. As, I don’t know how much their parents are sharing because my children were told. We can not STOP telling our stories.
I also share my African American books and art work.
Marie, thank you for reading. I agree with you. It’s so important to tell our little ones our family stories and our collective one so that they know their own personal power and our collective power too.
Edith C. says
A great article. The only way I knew how to share our Black history with my daughter was through reading lots of books by Black authors and images that look like her. She is an avid reader to this day! Also, she attended an HBCU to learn even more. I am proud of her determination to love herself and serve our community by paying it forward.
Edith, thanks for reading and sharing your story. Great job momming, Sis! You must be very proud of the self-loving daughter you helped shape.
Dr. Ashley Nicole Campbell says
Love every piece of this! Thank you for sharing this. All of what you expressed made me think of my internal thoughts and the quick guided conversations with students. Thank you!
Dr. Campbell, thank you so much for reading. I think that any of us who teach or mentor young people are processing this and thinking through how to encourage and support our children to find strength where our ancestors left it – in our stories.
Joanna Smith says
I completely agree with your post about the importance of understanding the historical context of slavery before making assumptions about how one would have acted in that situation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing resistance and imagining ourselves as heroes in a struggle against oppression, but the reality is much more complex and nuanced. I appreciate your emphasis on the humanity of enslaved people and the ways in which their resistance took many different forms. My question for you is: how do you think we can encourage more nuanced and informed discussions about slavery and resistance in educational settings?
Thanks for reading and for your excellent question. It’s a big one that I’d like to answer with some intention.
Please check back in with this conversation in a couple of days.
Really like your powerful post! Just started reading the The 1619 project. Not an easy ready…but it has to be told, ignoring the criticism, Thank you for educating all of our youth’
Love Love Love this. Yes our children need to know that black is beautiful, and to believe that no weapons formed against them will prosper. And to know that knowledge is powerful, keep being thirsty for more.