When a friend told me about Alberta Williams King, my first reaction was “who?” This question was followed by a wave of shame. It was the same feeling I had a few years ago when I first heard about Fannie Lou Hamer. Then later came Ida B. Wells and other leaders who seemed to appear in the discussion of American history to my confused, uninformed silence. I started to suspect that I had half an education and that I had been leaving out the role of women and feminism in Black History.
I thought I was fairly well-versed in African-American history. My parents filled our shelves with the core curriculum: Up From Slavery, Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Native Son, Black Boy, Go Tell it On the Mountain, Soul on Ice, The Miseducation of the Negro, Before Columbus, and many more pieces of literature and non-fiction. I immersed myself in books, hagiography, essays, videos, encyclopedias. My extracurricular studies came from an authentic curiosity (instead of dutiful obligation) to know more about my family. Black females held the role of poetry and song: Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Sapphire. But as far as activism and leadership, the ranks were all-male.
“Well, we don’t study it that much because there’s no such thing.” As South Florida child attending privileged white schools, I heard this answer a lot in response to request for getting more out of February. Usually I was the only black face in the honors classes and would be the lone petitioner. By the time I was in middle school, the atmospheric ignorance didn’t invoke anger in me. Instead I became curious as to who else did not “have a history.”
The answer was anything not in Europe or the Mideast. When my teachers lectured about Mideast history, they had to mentally sever Egypt, Libya, and most of the region from the African continent just to keep the Eurocentric/Mediterranean conceit in tact. But none of this surprised me. Most of my white peers reached a consensus that African-Americans didn’t really have a history before slavery (or the arrival of Europeans) and not much to talk about after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The only subcategory with an even smaller claim to historical significance were Black women. And while a fierce argument would rage in defense of the need for black history, most were willing to concede the importance of that history’s feminism.
Now this isn’t meant to be a diatribe against my teachers, family, or community. I’m grateful for their lessons on African-American men who made black history. But after hearing about Alberta Williams King last month having no idea of who she was, I began to wonder how many transformational stories I had been missing. With the exception of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, I had neglected one half of my story.
Even now, as the nation’s attention focuses on the new generation of activists fighting against police brutality and hate crimes, it’s women who are often left out. The silence has subtle but lasting consequences. Historical omission points toward a culture’s subconscious beliefs that some people matter less than others. When female stories are muted, we are teaching our kids that their dignity is second class and the historical accounts of their lives are less relevant. This lowered value carries over when women face sexual objectification and systemic brutalization from inside and outside the community. When we can’t see ourselves in our history, we begin to think that we are disconnected and suffering alone. Historical ignorance always precedes cultural imbalances and individual despair. Too many lives are still lived in the blank space, too many march for racial equality while subjugating their gender and even sexual orientation.
The wave of inter- and intra-community violence against women and African American LGBT citizens is not an accident. It may seem like nit-picking to talk about the lack of non-heteronormative stories during Black History Month. But historical exclusivity often has a way of turning into present and institutionalized tragedy. Whose story gets told matters.
As an adult, I’m trying to make up for lost time. By getting to know Wells’ work in highlighting lynchings, Mrs. King’s behind-the-scenes leadership, Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism in Mississippi to get people registered to vote, and many other women whose stories must be told to our children when they are young so that they become a part of the accepted mainstream of black History.
Lead photo, from left: Martin Luther King, Sr., Alberta Williams King, Coretta Scott King, and Christine Farris, Dr. King's sister.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.