Lately all I’ve been able to think about is school. Scheduling, classes, homework, papers. I’m nervous about how I might do, even though I’ve always been a pretty good student. As a child, my strength was English; I loved it, and I always got As. My weakness? History.
I loathed history (or social studies). I just could not understand the point of it. It felt so irrelevant to me, memorizing these dates and names and places that happened so long ago. And I could not get any higher than a C in history, and I struggled so badly to even maintain that. I spent hours studying (and I was not a child that studied for classes; history was the only subject I bothered with), doing flash cards with my mom, and still barely passed. There were a couple of semesters in all my years of grade and high school when I managed to get my history grade up to a B, but my math grade then lowered to a C. I never did manage to hold at least a B in both math and history at the same time, not until college when I got As in both.
Today, I love history. Specifically, I love learning the truth about history. I had heard of the saying “History is written by the winners,” but I didn’t truly understand its implications until I was an adult. What started my newfound respect for history was, oddly enough, a homework assignment in a college Astronomy class. The question that my professor asked was, “Why didn’t the people of Christopher Columbus’ time want him to sail westward?”
Now, if you got the history lessons that I did as a child, you would think that the answer was obvious. Columbus got opposition because the people of his time believed that the world was flat, and that he would sail right off the edge of the planet. Of course, they were wrong and he was right and everyone in America all lived happily ever after (Native slaughter? What native slaughter?).
I did the research even though I was positive that I already knew the answer, and what I found shocked me. The people of Columbus’ time did not believe that the world was flat; they knew better. The disagreement between Columbus and his country folks came from exactly how large the world was; he believed that the world was much smaller than it actually is, and they were convinced that he and his crew would starve to death before reaching his destination. It was his pure luck to come across the western continents; otherwise they all would have died.
It was at that point that the saying “History is written by the winners” really started to make sense to me.
[Description: An elderly black man wearing a Confederate uniform is sitting on a chair and looking thoughtfully at the canteen in his hands. A Confederate battle flag is draped in the background.]
So what does all of this have to do with parenting a black child? Because of who the winners are. The winners, the people holding the power in this society, are overwhelmingly white, male, able-bodied, cis, and wealthy. The history that I learned in school was white male able-bodied cis history; everyone else was either erased from the books entirely, or had their stories twisted to conform to the view of history that made the winners look the best.
New York, 1880
[Description: A black woman poses in a sepia-toned full-length portrait wearing an elegant dress. She has a huge afro.]
I don’t know where my family came from or how we came to live in this city. I don’t know the country, the tribe, the language, the faith, or the names that my ancestors had. I don’t know who owned us, and I don’t really have the stomach to sit down and scroll through the cattle lists to find out who bought us and where the marketplace they bought us from is located – the knowledge that my foremothers were livestock for breeding, raping, and working to death makes me nauseous, and I’m not ready to look that truth in the face just yet. All of that African history was taken from us, forcefully, so all that remains is the history of our people living within this country, the American half of our history. And that history as it is taught today is tainted, twisted.
The Tuskegee Airmen
[Description: Eight black airmen pose in front of a plane.]
When people have their history stripped from them, they lose a kind of power. They don’t have the ability to learn from their mistakes. Groups that have been harmful to them in the past can more easily earn their trust and complicity when it is not deserved. People who don’t learn about those who came before them and did great things have trouble recognizing within themselves the ability to do great things.
A young boy touches the president's hair to see if it is really like his own.
[Description: In the Oval Office, President Obama leans over so that a small black boy can touch his head.]
We didn’t learn about Mississippi appendectomies in my history class. We didn’t learn about the Tuskegee experiments. We didn’t learn about Emmet Till. Blockbusting. Audre Lorde. Malcolm X. Juneteenth. Madame CJ Walker. Kwanzaa. Redlining. HBCUs. Black Confederate soldiers. Henrietta Lacks. La Amistad. Drapetomania. We didn’t learn shit about the people, the places, and the dates that are important to the American descendants of slaves. We didn’t learn our history.
Young Emmett Till was tortured and lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman
[Description: A black-and-white picture of Emmett Till, a black teenaged boy, from the shoulders up. He is smiling gently and wearing a straw hat.]
You know what else we didn’t learn? Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was originally observed by former slaves who were freed after the Civil War. I just learned this today, the day after my 27th Memorial Day. I should have already known; the truth of that history should have already been taught to me, but it wasn’t. Black contributions have been hidden or obscured and black achievements have been discarded or co-opted.
I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s happening in Texas, with the rewriting of history books to conform to a more conservative view of things. Among other things, they attempted to rename the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to the Atlantic Triangular Trade, but relented in light of the backlash. This is part of a calculated effort to control people, to make them easier to win over, by distorting their histories. A person that doesn’t know where they came from or how they got here is just so much easier to control than one who does know. Knowledge of self is power. Knowledge of history is power.
[Description: A black-and-white photo of two older black women in a booth. The booth has a sign saying “Vote Yes on Women Suffrage Oct 19” across the top of the booth and one saying “Votes for Women” across the bottom.]
I intend to arm my daughter with that same power, so she will have the tools she needs to fight those who attempt rewrite her origins for their own purposes. Our history is worth knowing, worth learning from, and worth sharing with others. I will not let anyone lie to her about what her people have accomplished and the reasons we’ve made it this far. I will not let anyone take that power away from her.