I remember exactly where I was: Ms Janda’s 4th grade class, Feb 1977.
“DrMartinLutherKingJr” a classmate sang/responded to Ms Janda’s question (Ever notice that only adults say Dr. Martin. Luther. King. Jr?). All the students knew the answer. They all knew who the great Dr. King was. Everyone that is, except me. I felt betrayed, like some vital information essential for my wellbeing, had been deliberately kept from me. When I got home, I demanded answers.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me who DrMartinLutherKIngJr is?” I sang/questioned? My mother pretends not to hear me or walk away when she doesn’t want to answer my questions. I know this now. But back then, I believed that she must be……. (Cue soap opera music), the ringleader of the great “Black History Blackout Conspiracy”.
I was convinced that if she was so diabolically evil as to withhold information about DrMartinLutherKingJr., she’s probably holding back on all things Black and proud. I vowed to defeat her attempts to keep me young, gifted and ignorant by learning as much about being Black in general, and DrMartinLutherKingJr in particular, as possible. I would not be denied!!! (Cue more soap opera music).
Fortunately for me, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. So essentially, I was incubated in Black history. Not only could I read about Black history at the Whitney Young Library on 79th& King Dr, but I walked the streets of Black history anytime I passed A.R. Leaks and Sons, or Seaway National Bank, or Operation Push.
I didn’t just read “We Real Cool” in my English class. The author, Gwendolyn Brooks lived mere blocks from my school. I didn’t just hear about what happened to Emmet Till, I knew he was buried at the cemetery down the street from my cousin’s home. And that his mother lived in the neighborhood too. Like many of my then classmates can attest, we were taught by many elementary and secondary Chicago public school teachers – both black and white – who celebrated and educated us about our Black history, heritage and culture.
Shock and awe, no doubt, to those people who believe that all ‘inner city schools’ are educational wastelands.
For a twenty year period, from the 4th grade to my late 20’s, I would periodically ask my mother Black history questions. What were your thoughts on the March on Washington? What do you think of Malcolm X? Did you read “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings?” As usual, she would not answer or be evasive.
Finally, I got fed up with her Black History Blackout Conspiracy antics and asked bluntly and accusatorially, “Why didn’t you teach me ANYTHING about being Black. What’s your problem??!!” Of course, I asked her from a safe distance. Just because she is a Black History Blackout Conspirator, doesn’t mean she won’t smack the taste out my mouth.
“I didn’t think I needed to teach you about being Black. We ARE Black.” she said, then walked away to let me marinate.
While I stood there, marinating, I realized how right she was. I didn’t need to see the Smithsonian exhibit or the Jacob Lawrence paintings or the movie “A Raisin in the Sun” to understand, appreciate, and feel part of the Black history experience. I am the great-granddaughter of Alabama sharecroppers. The children of those sharecroppers, my grandmother among them, migrated from Alabama to Chicago, to Detroit, to California. They became all that Black people are – a wide range of experiences that are sometimes as well as sometimes not, historically documented.
A few days ago while at lunch, I told my mom I was writing an article about Black history. For the first time ever, my mother tells me of one of her Black history experiences. “I saw Aretha Franklin sing at her father’s church”, my mom remembers, “This was in 1964-65. She sang Amazing Grace”.