Before Black History
When Maya Angelou told me from the pages of a ratty middle school textbook that I was phenomenal, I believed her. I knew that my dark skin, full lips, and knotty hair in no way made me inferior. When Langston Hughes told me that I, too, can sing, I embraced it, maybe too loud and a bit off-key, but I knew the sound of my voice and the importance of it being heard. When Nikki Giovanni told me that the revolution would commence whether I was with it or against it, I wished I had marched, with defiant afro and clinched fist years earlier than my birth, because I already felt powerful.
When I was 12 years old, I read Alex Haley’s Roots from cover to cover as I sat under the hot Mississippi sun, visiting my grandmother for the summer. I remember the how the oppressive heat echoed the oppression experienced by those slaves, and I cried. I knew how fortunate I was, and I appreciated how the struggles of those who came before me shaped the world in which I was able to live.
But how did I know all of this? How was I able to connect to my literary history at such a young age? It was because I had an education every day of my life provided by the people who knew me first. I can remember my mama telling me, “You hold your head up, and you speak like you know what you are talking about. You don’t have to lower your eyes and pussyfoot around what you really think.” I remember my daddy saying, “Don’t nobody owe you nothing. You will have to work for everything you get in this life. And if it’s given to you, just know that you’re going to owe somebody for it later. It’s better to let your hard work and integrity take you where you want to go.” I can remember my grandmother saying, “There’s nothing wrong with being humble and nice. You’re smart, but you don’t have to make other people feel dumb.” But most of all, I can remember people saying, “I love you,” so I didn’t have to look for its lying manifestations in the streets.
Black literary giants and historical heroes fill me with a great sense of pride, and as a teacher, I would use them to tell my teenaged students that stereotypical jokes and portrayals did not define them. But I didn’t stop there. I would have conversations with parents who had given up on their children with an “I’ve tried,” or a “he does that at home, too,” or even a “there’s nothing else I can do.” But I can remember my daddy saying, “As long as you live in this house and even when you’re grown and gone you better not…” and my mama adding, “and you better not even think you’re going to…” and those words, along with a look of conviction and intention, let me know that they meant business. And I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that when I did try to push the envelope and was found out, I really did feel like I had the black slapped off of me, even though no one ever raised a hand to me. The people in my life did everything they could to ensure that I realized my potential. They didn’t make excuses, no matter how valid or easy. They took responsibility for my life even when I wished they’d let me be my own person.
There were too many people in my life to let me fail. Too many people having the highest of expectations for me. Too many people working hard to support me. Too many people teaching me. Too many people loving me. Too many people praying for me. And I realized long before Black History meant something significant to me that I was blessed, and as a blessed person, I had a great deal of responsibility placed upon me. You see, my Black History Month heroes and heroines are the administrative assistant, the police officer, the seamstress, the hotel cook, the security guard, the kindergarten teacher, the machine operator, the construction worker because they taught me what it really means to be strong, empowered, and loved. They marched on the front lines of my life, spit in the faces of my oppressors, taught me to rise above foolishness, reminded me of my duty to others, and gave me the tools to pray. And for that, I am eternally grateful and indebted.