Today, I want to focus on Black History as it relates to my experiences in my lifetime, but I don’t necessarily look at it in a way many would expect. You see, I’m not an expert in Black History, nor will I pretend to be. I want to make this a little more personal and talk to you about this topic in the context of my family.
Black History Milestone Primer (for context)
As I said, I have no plans to pretend to be a History teacher – so, here’s a handy timeline of Black History Milestones from History.com (The History Channel). And I’ll instead list some key points mentioned on that timeline as quick bullet points down below (I’ll also add in a few things they excluded here and there).
This list is seriously for context as you read what follows it (and you’ll want to read to the end), and so that we can all kind of have some base level of historical understanding. Keep the length of time between the dates in mind and how recently certain events happened.
I color-coded items in the list to make the centuries distinguishable. Beyond that, feel free to look up any of these things on Google. PLEASE NOTE: This listing is NOT all-inclusive.
1619 – Slavery comes to North America (symbolic date)
1793 – Rise of the Cotton Industry
1831 – Nat Turner’s Revolt + Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad
1857 – Dred Scott Case
1861 – U.S. Civil War Begins
1863 – The Emancipation Proclamation
1865 – U.S. Civil War Ends + Juneteenth + Reconstruction Period Begins
1870 – The 15th Amendment + Sharecropping begins
1877 – Reconstruction Period Ends
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson (Separate but Equal)
1909 – NAACP Founded
1918 – Harlem Renaissance Begins
1921 – Tulsa Race Massacre
1929 – Wall Street Crash + Great Depression Begins in the U.S.
1937 – Harlem Renaissance Ends
1941 – Great Depression Ends + WWII Begins + Sharecropping fades away in the ’40s
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education + Civil Rights Movement Begins
1955 – Emmett Till + Rosa Parks
1963 – Birmingham Church Bombing + “I Have a Dream” Speech
1964 – Civil Rights Act
1965 – Malcolm X Assassinated + Voting Rights Act
1966 – Black Panther Party Founded
1968 – Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated + Fair Housing Act + Civil Rights Movement Ends
1971 – U.S. Government’s War on Drugs Begins
1978 – California v. Bakke (Affirmative Action)
1986 – “The Oprah Winfrey Show” launches
1991 – The Rodney King Beating
1992 – L.A. Riots
2008 – Barack Obama Becomes 44th US President
2012 – Trayvon Martin
2013 – “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) first used (in response to Zimmerman acquittal)
2014 – Eric Garner + John Crawford III + Michael Brown + Ezell Ford + Tamir Rice
2015 – Walter Scott + Freddie Gray + Sandra Bland + Charleston Church Massacre
2016 – Philando Castille + Alton Sterling + Terence Crutcher + Colin Kaepernick’s first kneel
2020 – Ahmaud Arbery + Breonna Taylor + George Floyd (Nationwide BLM Protests)
Let’s Talk About My Great Grandma
Specifically, let’s talk about my great grandma on my mom’s side.
Below is one of the oldest pictures I think I’ve seen in my family tree. It is jokingly called “The Roots Photo” (a play on the old historical drama) on my mom’s side.
The little girl that gets highlighted in one of the images below — well, she grows up to become my great-grandma: Ophelia Houston.
She is the matriarch of the Harris family (that’s my mom’s maiden name).
I know a few other names in the photo (like my great-aunt Sarah – she’s the small girl next to my great-grandma – and their mom, Elizabeth – my great-great-grandma who I never met), but let’s focus on the little girl who was highlighted.
She was born June 10, 1922. And I’d say she looks like she’s about… what… 4 or 5-years old in this photo? This was in Duck Hill, Mississippi – so they didn’t own that property they’re on. This is a photo of a sharecropping family. Looking at the timeline above – they’re about a single generation removed from legalized U.S. slavery. Think about that. People like to act as though slavery were some far off distant thing… It came to an end in the U.S. in 1863 – 1865 (depending on where you lived in the country).
My great-grandma Ophelia, who was potentially the child of former slaves, would go on to marry my great-grandpa Pearlie Harris (born February 13, 1915) and take his last name. Those two amazing people then lived through all of the trying racial times listed above (at least from 1922 and beyond) – before passing in their old age in the late ’90s. Grandpa went first on July 23, 1998 – and my grandma soon followed on October 5, 1999. They were survived by tons of loving kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. They were well-loved.
Reading Between The Lines of My Family History
I won’t bother rehashing my immediate family story because I’ve done it before on this site in another post (I touch on it briefly here at the 3:33-mark). Instead, I want to spell out the implications of my family’s history – which I’m sure is very similar on my dad’s side because both of my parents are originally from Mississippi (they met later on in Kansas City, Missouri).
My great-grandparents were just beginning to be recognized as people, and not property, in this country when they were children. They didn’t own anything, and given our laws around resource allocation and education – they very likely didn’t learn much when compared to our modern standards that we’re more familiar with. They were kind of the first class of “real humans” in my family line with very limited rights that were gradually granted to them through years of institutional/systemic racism. I am not saying that to be harsh or to seek pity, those are just facts.
I would really start to argue that my family didn’t really start having a fighting chance at really making something of themselves until 1960 when my grandmother would’ve been in her 20’s and my mom would’ve just been born (1959).
I say that because my grandmother (Bobbie Jean) was probably in the first generation of my family to actually get anything resembling a proper modern education in the U.S. (again – see the timeline above for context). My grandmother was also probably in the first generation of my family afforded any real/fair opportunity in terms of ownership and reasonably paid wages as she grew up (dealing with very overt racism).
This is all supposition on my part – but it’s not far-fetched. My grandmother (who I called “Bobbie Jean”) was born in 1939. LOOK AT THE TIMELINE ABOVE.
It is literally this…
Do the (Generational) Math
That cartoon in the section above, if you’ve never seen it – pisses SO MANY people off, but it’s not wrong.
I literally just factually broke it down for you using my own family’s history. And the cartoon, which I remembered and went to find AFTER I wrote the paragraphs about my family history, has the race beginning for the two Black participants in what year? 1964 (the year of The Civil Rights Act).
Just 57 years ago.
And the kicker is my family’s story isn’t anything uncommon in Black America. A lot of us come from very similar backgrounds in this regard. Take my family’s history and multiply that by the 15 million+ Black households in the U.S. (based on 2019 U.S. Census numbers). Factor in the GENERATIONS of Black People who were left behind in a multitude of ways, and barely even seen as people, at certain points in U.S. history, and it tells you a lot about how Black People have ended up with less and are so far behind their peers (on average) in terms of assets.
Sure, exclude a few thousand Black families from this equation due to fortunate circumstances (I’m genuinely happy for those lucky few). But, by and large, there’s no getting around how the results of modern Black America’s generally perceived, researched, and accepted gap in resources – compared to other ethnicities in THIS country – came to be.
Not when you consider the historical context and the fact that other people didn’t have centuries of slavery and racism in this country hanging over their heads and psyche while impacting their ability to earn and build assets.
Ending on a Good Note
I didn’t use my personal family history in this post to bring anyone down or to play the victim card. I genuinely just wanted to show a real example of how Black People’s familial history can impact our collective experience in America. I don’t think enough people understand the implications of that history.
Yes, that personal and (mostly) shared Black History has brought us into the American rat race a little late – but we’re all aware of that fact in my generation (and I’m sure they’ll be aware of it in younger generations as well).
Our shared history does bring some Black People down to a pit filled with a sense of futility for a little while, but it also acts as a constant reminder to stay focused and work hard for many of us.
I mean, in my family – Ophelia and Pearlie passed down a spirit of grit and determination as their legacy.
We don’t quit. We find a way. We keep it together.
And that’s the happy end of the math from the previous section. Take my family’s passed down “spirit of grit and determination” and multiply that by the 15 million+ Black households in the U.S.