I was born in Orangeburg, a small town in South Carolina, to two parents with professional degrees. Growing up, my mom immersed me in the best she could: a private education from nursery school until seventh grade, extracurricular activities, weekend trips to museums and Charleston and summer performance arts festivals. In many of these activities, I rarely saw people who looked like me, whose skin matched the brown of my own. Like the activities I was engaged in, my neighborhood was comprised almost exclusively of white people, with only one other black family living down the street. The absence of self-representation in my community left me with deep-seated feelings of resentment toward my brown skin, a skin which rendered me ‘other’ in my own community. My skin bestowed me with kinky curls that the parents of the other black girls in my school had chemically relaxed from an early age. My skin had caused the parents of my white friends to exclude me on occasion from social activities that were in their private domain. My skin was a silent problem in the communities I operated.
My school did very little to address the issue of race, particularly as it pertained to people of color. Its black population was similar to that of Wellesley. In my predominantly white private school, I remember learning of racism as though it were a thing of the past, focusing solely on the transatlantic slave trade and the American Civil Rights Movement. This dampened history made it difficult for me to draw parallels between these social justice movements and the modern-day; it also disabled me from personally connecting to many of the issues the greats like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. fought tirelessly to overcome. My mom compensated for the inadequacy of the curriculum by integrating African-American studies into the media she exposed me and my siblings to. I found strength as a child in learning more about the unsung heroes of the past like Ruby Bridges, Madam C.J. Walker, Maya Angelou, Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm and countless others who expanded the place of African-Americans in the fields of education, arts, marketing, sports and politics. My mom took extra steps to ensure that I saw myself not only in the books I read, but also in the dolls that I played with and the cards that she gave me. She purchased African-American Barbie dolls directly from Barbie because she could not find them on store shelves and colored the skin of the children on the cards with brown pencil to match my skin. I will always be grateful to my mom for teaching me that my history is one that is worthy of acknowledgement. She made an effort to ensure that I saw myself in history, in spite of my school textbooks’ failure to acknowledge the accomplishments of black people.
As we embark upon Black History Month as a community, I hope that you will take time to expand your base of knowledge regarding the African diaspora. The Harambee House is hosting a variety of events throughout the month of February for all Wellesley students to learn more about the pan-African world, from African head wrapping to conversations about public education and the Black Church. The Community Action Network will also be hosting a variety of events for members of the Wellesley community to discuss the topics of race and coalition-building.
As a woman of African descent, I know that I have room to grow in learning more about AfricanAmericans like myself, as well as Africans and Afro-Caribbeans. As Dr. Tracey Cameron, my advisor, stated at Harambee House’s inaugural Black History Month event last week, “Black History should be celebrated 365 days of the year.” I hope that you will join me and my Harambee siblings as we celebrate our heritage and continue to learn about ourselves.
Happy Black History Month, Wellesley!