I am embarrassed to say this but here it goes: I didn’t know much about black history when I was a teenager and in my early 20’s. I went to a largely Caucasian school (out of 700 students in my graduating class only 7 were African American) and black history just wasn’t something that was discussed, in fact I don’t even think it was on the radar. I really didn’t begin to learn about the contributions of African Americans until I went to college and took the time to look up prominent black folks in an encyclopedia in the library.
When I was a sophomore, a college administrator invited me to attend a gathering called The Black Conference on Higher Education in Harrisburg, PA. Among other things the purpose of the event was to support African American college students from across the Commonwealth, encourage them to attend the informative workshops and give them a chance to mingle. From the onset it was clear that the students who were present knew more about their heritage than I did. As they talked about people like Minister Louis Farrakhan, Langston Hughes and others, I sat there bewildered because I never heard of them. At the end of the event the presenter implored everyone to stand on their feet so we could all sing the Negro National anthem. Unfortunately, I didn’t know such a song existed so when everyone lifted their voices I simply pretended to sing along and prayed that no one would notice that I didn’t know the words. Attending that conference was a wake-up call for me because I suddenly realized how little I knew about my people. Embarrassed and ashamed I vowed to learn more about what my ancestors went through.
After I graduated from college I began subbing in an all-black school district. As I entered the classrooms I noticed that there were black history books everywhere. As I thumbed through the various texts I learned more about the Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Bethune McLeod and countless people who fought for racial equality. Then, in February of 1990, I came across Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize: Americans Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985 video series on PBS. For the first time I saw actual video footage of the challenges black folks faced. Suddenly it hit me; somewhere along the line somebody endured a beat down, caught a bullet or received a police baton to the back of the head so that blacks could vote, sit at a lunch counter or attend a decent school.
Whenever, I get tired and feel like skipping class, I think about how difficult it was for Ruby Bridges to be the first black child to attend an all white elementary school, how the Little Rock Nine risked their lives to attend a segregated high school and how James Meredith fought to gain admission to the University of Ole Mississippi. When I consider what they endured for me I get my things together, grab my books and get on the train for my weekly trip to Temple.