Reflections on Black History Month

January 26, 2024

February is Black History Month. The shortest month of the year is dedicated to learning and teaching (sort of) the history of Black people here in the Unites States. When I was a kid, I loved Black History Month. For 28 days I got to learn about a history that was not often taught or spoken about and see faces in books that more closely resembled mine. As I got older, I realized that the history that we were consistently being taught was very little and revolved around MLK as the good peaceful Black man, making Malcom X a terrorist and simultaneously making Rosa Parks into a martyr while diminishing her role as an activist, planner and strong organizer. The only thing that was invented by Black people was peanut butter (Which by the way was not invented by George Washington Carver).

Nowhere in all of schooling where we taught Black men and women’s ingenuity, intelligence or contributions (minus the examples I previously mentioned). So, I want to share a story with you about ingenuity, intelligence, bravery…and cross dressing. I want to introduce you to Ellen and William Craft.

Ellen and William Craft were enslaved. Ellen was the daughter of Marie, an enslaved woman, and Marie’s owner, Major James Smith. Ellen resembled her white siblings and was very light skinned, so much so that she could pass for white. When Ellen was around 11, Major James’s wife gave Ellen as a wedding gift to Eliza Cromwell Smith, Ellen’s half-sister. This was done because Ellen looked so much like her half siblings and was a constant reminder of the Major’s infidelity.

William and Ellen met in Georgia on the plantation where Ellen was taken to. William was born on that plantation. They married when Ellen was 20. They did not want to have and raise children while enslaved, so they decided to run. William made money as a carpenter and had managed to save some up.

The plan would cross race, gender and social status boundaries. William came up with the plan for Ellen to dress as a white male plantation owner traveling with his male servant. They would travel for four days. William came up with the plan, but it was up to Ellen to execute it and sell it. They even figured out what to do if Ellen was asked to sign something and the solution was brilliant!

I wish I had heard more stories of all the ingenious ways and all the lengths people went through to gain freedom. All the bravery and courage. Stories like Henry (Box) Brown’s. He shipped himself in a wooden crate from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He paid 86 dollars, half of his savings.

 Stories of men and women inventing, problem solving in science and out of necessity. Did you know that it was a Black man that invented the game cartridge? Jerry Lawson was his name.   I wish I could have learned more about all the things that Black people invented, like crop rotation techniques (which George Washington Carver did discover), the three-light stop light, blood and pulse monitoring devices, and even spray guns. Maybe then I could have seen myself occupying these spaces more easily.

Maybe if I would have known about more than a few chosen educated Black people, and of those the majority men, I would have been able to dream a bit bigger or at least known that I could have. Maybe I would have gone to college earlier because I would have known that it was possible. That it was the real thing. Maybe, had I learned about Bessie Coleman and how she was the first Black/Native woman to become a pilot and the first ever Black/Native American person to get their international pilot’s license, I would have dreamed higher, bigger, greater. Because I would have seen someone who looked like me achieve what was said to be impossible. I would have understood that my people, Black people, were smart, were brave, were highly ingenuitive and intelligent. That Black people, my people, did things. Important things. That in fact Black people figuratively and literally built the United States and grew the United States. Maybe I would have felt more seen and not erased. Maybe…. If only we learned about such things for more than 28 days out of the 365 days. Maybe if more than a handful of approved Black male heroes and even fewer Black women were not carefully chosen and put forth as a compromise. Maybe if the history of Black people were not chosen by and sculpted by white educators. Who knows.

Author: Rochelle Hazard