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    African American History Month: Celebrating ‘Hidden Figures’ of Resistance and Truth

    By Andrea Shorter–

    My four most favorite months of the year are February, March, June, and October. February because it is African American History Month, which I will come back to in a minute. March for Women’s Her-Story Month, and June for LGBT Pride. October for not only raising awareness of how we can end domestic and family violence, but also because it is my birthday month. You gotta add your birthday month in there, right? For that matter, I should also add a fifth month: May. It is my honey’s birthday month, and lest I so publicly fail to add it to my list of favorite months of celebration, she is not likely to ever let me forget about such a glaring omission. So, honey, May it is.

    It is now February, and it is African American History Month. It is customary in February to educate, revisit, reconstruct, celebrate, and deliberate about the contributions of the thousands of well-known and not so well-known African Americans in social, political, sports, arts, entertainment and business life, and all array of historic contributions that have—and continue to pave the way—as the first to do, to dare, and to just be what they were destined and “free to be.”

    At the drop of a hat, I can certainly delve into the stories, the legacies, and impact of any number of figures that capture my fascination and admiration. These go from Fannie Lou Hamer to Bayard Rustin, from Justice Thurgood Marshall to Arthur Ashe, from Alvin Ailey to Toni Morrison, John Lewis to Ramsey Lewis, and so many, many more. They certainly include local ground breakers like Willie L. Brown, Jr., Doris Ward, Ken Jones, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Ron Dellums, Barbara Lee, and Kamala Harris.

    On this occasion, however, I must confess that lately when I think of the importance of African American history, I often think back to when I was a pupil at Indianapolis Public School 72 in the 1970s.

    This was the era of “bussing,” the often frightfully rocky road towards implementing school desegregation policies to rectify the separate but equal norms challenged by Brown vs. the Board of Education. Unlike my parents and grandparents, my younger brother and I attended what was called back then a “racially mixed” school. For us, this basically meant attending school with 85 per cent white students, with the rest of us being black. There were no Asian or Hispanic identified students, as they were virtually non-existent in the entirety of Indiana.

    My maternal grandparents, mother, and her brothers and sisters all graduated from Crispus Attucks High School, the premier all-black school definitively and decidedly segregated by white supremacists and allied city leaders. My dad excelled in academics at another not much less segregated high school across town.

    Whether you were at PS 72 or Crispus Attucks, posters of U.S. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Eisenhower, along with equally glowing, majestic portraits of Betsy Ross, Lewis and Clark, Thomas Edison, and Christopher Columbus ominously decorated our classroom walls and hallways all school year-round.

    Of the fifty or so K-8 school teachers at my school, there were eight African American teachers. In many regards, they were the first of many hidden figures along my own path who taught me about the importance of African American histories, and how quiet, but willful, acts of defiance can sow the seeds of resistance.

    There was wood shop teacher, Mr. Woody. Yes, his name really was Mr. Woody. He was a petite, whippet of a man with a big personality and zero tolerance for “foolishness” as he seriously taught wood crafts (i.e., bird houses, carved housewares, etc.) just for the boys. Mrs. Penn taught home economics (i.e., cooking, sewing, etc.), which served as the required gender segregated counterpart to wood shop for just us girls. Ms. Walker, Mr. Green, Mrs. Cunningham, Ms. Washington, Mr. Smith, and Ms. Crowly rounded out the black faculty who taught math, science, history, and other general education requirements.

    On occasion, some amongst this minority group of teachers would make a quiet, but radical, subversive and revolutionary act: They posted portraits of at least one African American historical figure in their classrooms. Maybe it would be on the birthday or a commemorative appearance by Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, or the recently slain Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Every now and then, Olympic greats like Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, or Oscar Robertson, or other legendary athletes like Althea Gibson or Jackie Robinson would pop up near the issued and approved pictorials of George Washington or Ben Franklin. There was never a Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, or an emerging Angela Y. Davis. Perhaps they knew the limits of their own radical subversive acts.

    If asked about these unusual people on the walls by one of their pupils, only then might that teacher offer some measured commentary about the historical significance of the particular displayed figure. After those few precious enlightening minutes, we’d then move on to the arithmetic, science, or history lesson at hand, from school books that were virtually whitewashed and cleansed of any portraits of African or people of color, with the exception of the obligatory one or two images and stories of colorfully feather crowned Indigenous Peoples ever so graciously and generously handing over their vast lands to the “we come in peace” alien, yet kindly, Godly Pilgrims.

    Now, as a middle-aging woman living far, far away from the Circle City, I believe that most, if not all, of those teachers have since passed or are well into their 90s. Still, I do and will always remember each and every one of them. In speaking their names, I seek to honor the lessons they sneakily imparted about those less heralded monuments and their successive collective will to lead a people beyond the bonds of slavery to finding their rightful place as emancipated Americans.

    I imagine them as young, dedicated educators organizing together how best and when to insert A. Philip Randolph, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, or Madam C.J. Walker as rightfully inclusive history, sparking the imaginations of all youngsters in their daily charge—black and white—about the tenacious complexities of truer American history.

    This was many years before Black History Month would become a more widely celebrated African American History Month, and long before MLK, Jr., Day became a national holiday, and decades before the election, inauguration, and two terms of the first Black President of the United States. I sincerely hope that most of them were at least able to witness a once unimaginable milestone embodied in the ascension of one Barack Hussein Obama come to fruition.

    The more I think about those grade school teachers, I believe the deeper lesson they were working to instill was that of the importance of the quest for truth.

    Depending on who is telling the story, how they are telling the story, in what context, and why they tell the stories they do, history is not always about truth. The quests for civil and human rights through the social justice movement, no matter how the stories are told, are ultimately about a reckoning for and with truth: the inclusion of the truths of those omitted, discarded, and systematically divorced from the preferred realities constructed by those to whom such alien truths pose discomfort, obstacle, and threat to their enjoyment of the privileges and status quo fostered by their reluctance to owning up to the social, spiritual and even material consequences of denying essentially deemed inconvenient truths. What a vicious and exhausting cycle this can be. Still, like sunlight, such deeply repressed truth is bound to eventually break through the darkness.

    That those teachers had to resort to subversive measures to present some modicum of exposure to these vital, undeniable histories was a testament to the effects of the corrosive power of those who sought to overtly subvert or dismiss the truth of our histories, but most importantly, the will to speak truth to that power. In their own way, to me, they were hidden figures of resistance.

    Fear of the power of another’s denied truth can bear long reaching consequences, intended or not. As Bayard Rustin said, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

    Freedom resides in truth; truth resides in resistance. When self-evident truth is denied, none of us is truly free. The adage “the truth shall set you free” reminds us that the constant push and pull, negotiation towards inclusion, understanding, and acceptance can transcend barriers erected to hide, deny, or simply dare to obliterate truth, and therefore freedom.

    Denying climate change or HIV/AIDS or foreign interference in our elections does not make those things not true, no more than does throwing mud in someone’s eye and telling them it was rain. It’s still mud.

    My hope is that African American History Month not only serves as a continuous exploration, appreciation, and celebration together of the dimensions and depth of historical figures and monumental moments, but also in these times—when even the most basic, self-evident truths and aspirational hopes about a civil democracy are declared suspect by its chief leader—we resist by remaining inspired to keep on pushing to the fore those once inconvenient truths born of privilege and oppression towards the messy, but necessary, reconciliation to being more whole, and truly free.

    Andrea Shorter is President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights, and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.