In commemorating February as Black history month in the United States, I began to reflect upon my own experience of learning about these important African American experiences. Personally, I identify as a Black-multi-racial woman who was born and raised in the United States during the mass racial unrest of the civil rights era. While attending elementary school and high school I cannot really recall any direct memories of interfacing Black history other than very brief references to African American enslavement and victimization. These particular references were basically “blink of an eye” moments that were featured without any specific explanation or real meaning—they just happened.
Over time I began to understand that my collection of bulky history textbooks which extended from American history to Western and European Civilization actually represented a powerful testament to the world of historical white supremacy. In retrospect it was quite interesting to think about how I had to physically be burdened with these “heavily-laden” textbooks that were overflowing with the achievements of white victors and heroes from all over the world. Perhaps that is part of the reason why I felt as though history was so boring and not worthwhile. I just did not feel any connection to it.
People who looked like me didn’t really seem to exist in world history or American history beyond Native people and Blacks experiencing racial oppression. I often wondered why white people did not like Black or Native American people throughout history. At times I could not understand why I had to be born Black and belong to a group that was always at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My early schooling did not ever render any discussion that addressed my internalized questions nor was there any talk about Black or Brown American historical heroes. Little did I know at the time, but this was my introduction to the social construction of the historical indoctrination of “white superiority.” Of course, in my youth I did not fully realize that I was actually experiencing the invisibility, minimization and distortion of Blacks within American history. Yet, I was breathing it all in like air. It was a covert school experience of teaching and learning racial bias and racial hierarchy that targeted impressionable youth of all races in real-time.
Of course, in my youth I did not fully realize that I was actually experiencing the invisibility, minimization and distortion of Blacks within American history. Yet, I was breathing it all in like air.
College Years and A Black Collective Narrative
To my surprise during my college years I finally had the opportunity to take an undergraduate academic course that was all about Black history. I experienced an even bigger surprise when a white male professor walked into the lecture hall to teach the course. Many Black students were also shocked that “this white guy” would actually be our instructor. How could this white man teach “us” anything about our history? However, I have to say this professor earnestly demonstrated that he knew far more about Black history than probably any student in the class because he was highly informative and truthful. I learned so much from him about Black history and my own sense of racial identity. To this day I still have deep gratitude for the fact that my path crossed with the opportunity to learn from this professor’s depth of wisdom. I eventually had to admit that my quick assumption about this white male professor was totally inaccurate because he was truly both compassionate and brilliant. He also shared Black history in a way that was clearly situated in the fullness of the Black experience. He articulated a Black collective narrative filled with overwhelming collective trauma as well as incredible resiliency that was borne out of the roots of deep historical and trans-generational suffering. At last, I finally learned about my unknown ancestors along with their undying strength and vigor that fueled their relentless efforts toward the distant call to freedom. The Black poet Maya Angelou’s poetic words come to mind as I reflect upon my professor’s teachings about the remarkable stamina within the plight of the Black historical experience:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Teaching Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice
Over the last 20 years I have been teaching diversity, equity, and social justice academic and community classes. Teaching about diversity, historical oppression and trauma has been a significant part of my advocacy toward collective liberation. Within this time I have often reflected back on all that my white professor compassionately taught me about the power of all of us understanding Black history and the importance of Black people in particular understanding the roots of our own racial identity. As a result I was no longer disconnected from my ancestors who were all victors in their own right nor was I cut off from certain parts of myself. These meaningful memories were certainly gathered from an unexpected source, but ultimately cultivated a personal passion for supporting my own students’ enlightenment in terms of understanding the full meaning of the African American historical experience. The past has profoundly shaped and maintained our racial dynamics of today. Consequently, our past racialized lives must be validated as real and faced in its fullness—from the objectification and annihilation of African Americans to understanding how Blacks made meaning from their suffering and transformed it into incredible determination and true grit.
Sustaining Historical Hardiness
In retrospect, we can all learn how to sustain this type of historical hardiness in our lives. Despite the wrath of the external world, we can still harness the power to heal and choose our own internal reality and attitude toward ourselves. All throughout history we as Black people have always elevated our racial identity in various ways by declaring oneself as a freed slave, Black and Powerful, Black and Proud, Black is Beautiful and all the way to Black Lives Matter. Embedded within Black history is the path we must all extend in order to continue the process of dismantling our inherited internalized and externalized contemporary oppression. As the great African American writer James Baldwin said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Understanding the Truth of History
Black history is not just about blackness. At its very core this particular history reflects a deeply woven part of the sociopolitical fabric of the authentic American historical experience. Black history is American history—not separate, but resides broadly within. Understanding the truth of history can render an opportunity for all of us to discover vital lessons about who we really are and value as Americans and as human beings interconnected in this global world. Black history has powerfully revealed our current state of collective underdevelopment, othering and divisiveness as a society. Fortunately, there have been some historical periods which have rendered more opportunities and advances for Black people. However, there is still so much more work that needs to be done to really heal the impact of the deep historical wounds from centuries of collective enslavement, racial oppression, violence and trauma. As the Black poet, Amanda Gorman stated, “History has its eyes on us.”
“History has its eyes on us.”
– Amanda Gorman
What Really Makes Black History an Incredibly Intriguing and Captivating Reflective Discovery for All Humans?
Recently, I happened to hear an African American woman speak about being Black on an PBS documentary called The Black Church. She uttered these profound words of historical truth, “they have always tried to kill us (Blacks), but we are still here.” I immediately felt as though this sentence fully captured the essence of Black history. Despite the of layers of suffering, exploitation, powerlessness, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanization for centuries, we still stood up after being knock down and out over and over and over again across history to declare “we are still here standing up and we are not sitting down.”
Most of us love to watch movies and read stories about characters who struggled hard, but they were able to prevail against all odds with remarkable resilience. I believe that we as humans tend to hope that our own sense of hidden strength and resilience will arise when needed just like these brave fictional characters. Yet, the Black historical experience has never been a movie or fantasy—it has been a very real collective experience that has impacted all of us to differing degrees. As a people Blacks have experienced a wide array of supportive ancestors and Black victors who have paved the way in the direction of liberation for each generation. I honor and commend all the determined and fierce Black pioneers who left a legacy of lessons situated in deep hope, faith, soul, compassion and totally unbreakable bravery “to just keep on keepin’ on and to keep our eyes on the real prize—living the truth of who we are.”
Black History is Everyone’s History
If you are interested in learning from an array of inspirational historical champions of mind-blowing strength and steady determination against all odds, you might explore some of the Black history victors, such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, The Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm, Thurgood Marshall, and many others. Black history is also your history whatever your racial identity happens to be in this world.
Black History Resources:
Article: Black History Month 2022, The Washington Post
Book: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabelle Wilkerson
PBS Documentary: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Podcast: Welcome to the Black History Podcast
Podcast: The Diaspora: From Plymouth to Revolution
Website: History.com: Origins of Black History Month
Website: The King Center
Website: Smithsonian Institute Museum of African American History
Website: Facing History and Ourselves
Website: Great Black Heroes
Website: The Undefeated: African Americans Who Shook Up the World
YouTube: Telling the Story of Slavery
YouTube: Black Renaissance: The Art and Soul of our Stories
About the Author
Sydney Spears, Ph.D., LCSW is a certified Mindful-Self Compassion teacher and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging for the Center of Mindful Self-Compassion. She also works part-time at the University of Kansas-School of Social Welfare specializing in teaching diversity, anti-oppression, social justice and clinical social work courses.
Copyright @Sydney Spears, 2022. Reprinted with permission from the author. First published on the website traumasensitiveyoga.com.