With Black History Month approaching, EmbRACE club attendees huddled around a tower of JENGA while brainstorming how best to acknowledge influential Black men and women of the past and present. Ideas of posting biographies of key figures throughout the hallways began to take shape in a list that quickly became too long and much too overwhelming to take on.
There are the Maya Angelou’s and Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Langston Hughes’s of poetry past and the TaNehisi Coates’s, Angie Thomas’s and Colson Whitehead’s of the present, and yet these are but a handful of solely American writers that even in the original construction of this sentence slighted other notables as Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Nikki Giovanni. How many hallway posts would be needed to accommodate the influential scientists, musicians, politicians, athletes, and religious figures?
Posters of athletes Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, jazz icons Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, writers James Baldwin and bell hooks, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Obama and Oprah would overwhelm bulletin boards–not to mention prominent civil rights leaders, MLK, Malcolm X, and John Lewis to name a few. Our club fund would risk depletion on color printing fees alone. But who would make the list? The expected, most recognizable faces or those who were behind the scenes or who are currently making inroads? Should figures be recognized at all or should the focus be on collective contributions of African-Americans?
Even by focusing on leaders throughout the Civil Rights Movement would prove challenging if we also acknowledged those who are currently continuing the fight for racial justice in what has become an undeniable climate of racial tension throughout the country.
For this reason, we settled on featuring some current movers and shakers in the advancement of racial equity alongside fewer recognizable figures that are typically commemorated. These are folks who are writing, directing, organizing, and speaking out against systemic racism that persists today. Some of these include filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele and thought leaders and activists Jeff Johnson, Shaun King, and the three women who founded the Black Lives Matter network: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Club member, Fiona Nugent, proposed the idea of featuring a prominent figure from the past alongside a figure from the present in the hallway of each discipline (Art, Athletics, English, Math, Music, Social Studies, Theater– you get the drift). While the task will be more manageable, the thought of choosing a single influential person from the past and present to represent an entire group of people who were pivotal in laying the foundation for this country and its successes is a ludicrous undertaking that may only be remedied by celebrating the accomplishments of African-Americans throughout the year, not wholly unreasonable if we are to honor the spirit of Black History Month, that is, to acknowledge the historically underrepresented collective and individual contributions of Black women and men to all facets of society and to learn more about Black history as a means of better understanding the present. For now, expect to encounter pictures of influential Black figures as you walk the hallways over the next few weeks, but beyond those you are more likely to recognize, be sure to take notice of others who are currently making history.
For additional opportunities to learn more, join EmbRACE club during an upcoming trip to the Chicago History Museum to check out exhibits Race: Are We So Different? and Remembering Dr. King. EmbRACE meets in the Wedge Cafe after school on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of the month and is open to all students anytime they are available to attend.