Black History Like Me
When I was in high school, I was on the academic bowl team. For those of you who don’t know, academic bowl is basically the team sport of nerds. It’s like being on Jeopardy, except with the team. And no money. At one meet, they asked this question: On what day was Martin Luther King assassinated? Sad to say, I didn’t know. As I was the only black kid on the team, one of my white teammates turned to me in that moment and said, “You should have known that.” Our coach turned to him and said, “You all should have known that.”
That’s the problem: My education failed me. Our education failed all of us. In my history classes, the only thing that was said about black people in America was how Lincoln freed the slaves. When my high school history teacher spoke of the Civil War, he referred to it as “The War of Yankee Aggression”, as his spit his chewing tobacco out the classroom window. In teaching about that war, the main cause was always states’ rights and never slavery. Slavery was mentioned as “one of the other causes”. There was no real thought given to black history or how black history is everyone’s history. When we spoke of racism, it was generic and vague. The only really influential civil rights leader that was mentioned was Martin Luther King. In fact, the only black people I can remember being mentioned were MLK and Crispus Attucks. I knew nothing of Medgar Evers. I had heard of Malcolm X, but I really wasn’t sure who he was. I had heard about the Black Panthers. I knew they existed, but that was about it. My education failed me.
One of the banes of my high school existence was my literature book. This thing was HUGE. It had to weigh about ten pounds. It was chock full of great works. However, all of those great works were great works by white people. Mostly white men. I never read Maya Angelou in school. I never read Toni Morrison. I never read Langston Hughes. I had heard all of these names, but they were never part of the curriculum. The summer I turned sixteen, I read The Color Purple for the first time. I had seen the movie and instantly connected to Miss Celie and her struggles. The book took me even deeper. It delved into issues that the movie was unable to reach. It presented situations that the movie left out. Whether these omissions were for the sake of time or the comfort of the white audience I don’t know, but I can guess. Every black author I have ever read was on my own time. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t read Zora Neale Hurston until I was in my forties. I discovered August Wilson in college, but he was never on the syllabus. In my undergraduate theater department, I was the only black theater major, and I felt it. Our assigned reading list was lily white. This trend continued into grad school, but at least there was another black person in the class. At first. Once she quit the program, I was once again on my own. And I was ABSOLUTELY alone. I was awash in a sea of Chekhov and Kushner, with nary a Lorraine Hansberry in sight. My education failed me.
It took me until adulthood to realize the psychological effect of this absence. Think about this: imagine you are told that you live in the greatest country in the world. And as you learn about that great country in which you live, you learn about all the great men and women who made it great (but mostly about the men, but I digress.) Now imagine that in all of those great men and women (but mostly men) doing all those great things to make that country great, not one of them looks like you. What is the subtext of that? What message is that sending to you as a child? What does that tell you about your power, or lack thereof in this world?
Now imagine the converse. Imagine that you lived in that same great country, and now imagine that you were taught that every great thing that was done in your great country was done by people who looked like you. How would that make you feel? How would that make you feel about those other people? How would that make you feel about THEIR place in YOUR country that YOUR great people built?
I have always been fascinated by the fact that when black people have the audacity to voice a critique about America, there’s always a white person nearby to tell us that if we don’t like it, we’re free to leave. My first thought: Now that we’re not working for free, NOW, we’re free to go somewhere else? That’s literally the most American thing I have ever heard. My second thought: What gives you the right to say that to me? My third thought: Of course you think you have that right, because you were taught that you do. You were taught that you are the boss of me. You were taught that you built this country, and all I do is complain about it. Your education has failed you.
As a performer and a writer, narratives are very important to me. Whose story is being told? Why? What is being accomplished in telling this story? I apply this method of analysis to everything in life. Why are things the way they are? Who benefits from it? It is only by asking these probing questions, that we can find the answers to our societal problems. The problem with the current education system is that it has a definite narrative, and that narrative is rooted in and supportive of white supremacy. Our education has failed us.
And that is why education needs to change. Education can’t be whitewashed. Education has to include everyone. When we talk about history, we need to talk about EVERYONE’S history. We need to talk about Nat Turner. We need to talk about Frederick Douglass. We need to talk about Sojourner Truth. We need to talk about James Baldwin, Mary McLeod Bethune, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and so many more people. Our students deserve to read Upton Sinclair. They need to read Langston Hughes. They need to read Lorraine Hansberry. They need to read Maya Angelou. They need to read James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and so, so, sooooooooooo many more great writers of color. Because when you don’t see something, you have zero chance to understand it. When you don’t see someone’s perspective, their point of view, you have zero chance to empathize with them. You are a lot less likely to even try. When you don’t hear someone’s voice, you are a lot more likely to believe that they have nothing to say, and in doing so, you will be more inclined to speak over them. Our education has failed us. We know that now. And as Mother Maya said: When you know better, do better.