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