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Unsung and sung heroes and heroines of black history

In honor of Black History Month, we reflect on what it means to be African American and how stories of unsung heroes and heroines can inspire us today.

By Hannah LeGare ’19

Associate Dean and professor of history, Violet Showers Johnson.

Do you know about Civil Rights leaders such as E.D. Nixon or Ella Baker? What about Malcolm X’s contributions to the African American community? Often times, these people in history can be overshadowed by the larger, historical narrative of famous African American leaders.

In celebrating Black History Month, the College of Liberal Arts is driven by its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and belonging for all peoples on campus. Associate Dean and professor of history Violet Showers Johnson demonstrates this commitment through her research. Johnson studies immigrants of African descent and the multifaceted understanding of African identity in the United States. One of her academic intentions is to cast a larger light on the sung heroes and heroines in black history, like Kobe Bryant and Rosa Parks, to the unsung heroes and heroines, like Jo Ann Robinson and Bayard Rustin.

What, Then, Is the African American?

In order to address the unsung heroes and heroines in black history, Johnson illustrates the complicated question: “What does it mean to be African American?” One of Johnson’s most well-read publications addresses this question and comments on the fluctuating nature of African American identity and belonging. 

According to Johnson, being African American is multi-dimensional and epochal. By “epochal” she means that the discourse on African American identity changes from period to period.

“What it means to be African American during the era of Jim Crow is different than what it means to be African American in the era of Black Lives Matter,” said Johnson. 

For example, during the time of Jim Crow, there were signs that stated “colored only,” which negatively affected the African American conception of belonging in America. The signs demonstratively showed that African Americans did not belong in the larger American identity. However, in this current era, while there may be no visual signs that state “colored only,” the problem of systemic racism persists today.

“The effects of covert racism are just as brutal as overt racism,” said Johnson.

Why it is important to remember

From left to right: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

The effects of Jim Crow laws are one of the many reasons why the Civil Rights Movement occurred and why we celebrate African American identity through Black History Month. Johnson states that in remembering black history, it is important to recognize black leaders and their pursuits of justice — especially the lesser-known efforts of black heroes and heroines.

“The intellectual world goes outside of the center and brings people in from the margins and into the academic conversation,” Johnson said. “It is recognizing the people on the fringe, whose stories have not been shared or told.”

Johnson states that there are many reasons why certain black role models and histories are more popular than the others. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., is more widely known than Malcolm X because King’s identity fits within the American status quo. King was a Christian, advocated for nonviolence, and was well-educated; however, Malcolm X was a Muslim, advocated for aggressive measures, and was educated while in prison. While both leaders were popular in their times, King rose to prominence because of his ideology and background.

“During the Montgomery Bus Boycott that King came to lead, the African American community recognized that it was pragmatic and effective to have leaders that fit certain perceived criteria of the larger American culture,” said Johnson. “This demonstrates how heroes are evaluated, measured, and embraced by the majority culture.”

Of grave importance

Kobe Bryant

In life and in death, a cultural figure is created. In death, the cultural icon’s life is noted, revered, and celebrated.

“Every group has its heroes and martyrs, and death has a way of promoting and producing a cultural icon that transcends the grave,” said Johnson. 

When these tragic events occur in the black community, there is a rise of collective spirituality and sense of belonging in the larger American framework. 

Kobe Bryant is an example of an African American icon who fits several roles within the black community, the larger American context, and the global arena. His death shows what it means to be African American and American.

“Kobe Bryant is for all America, but there are some icons that are just for the black community — as they fit within our culture, identity, and sense of belonging,” said Johnson. “Blacks claim Bryant as a role model as much as people from different cultures and countries.”

In many ways, black role models can cross cultural and racial boundaries because of their fit into the larger narrative.

A sense of belonging

For Johnson, Black History Month shares the stories of well-known and lesser known leaders of the black community. For her, it goes beyond sharing the stories of peoples who have been marginalized, but to embrace the endurance of African Americans.

“It is not just about addressing the victimization of African Americans, but to share stories about our accomplishments, resilience, and endurance in the midst of oppression.”

As one of the associate deans of the College of Liberal Arts, Johnson has insight into the College’s priorities. She believes that the College does not adopt a single story narrative, but seeks to show the stories of all peoples within the curriculum. 

“The College of Liberal Arts is not just student-centered; it is people-centered,” said Johnson

“The College of Liberal Arts is not just student-centered; it is people-centered,” said Johnson. She states that the College promotes and develops the betterment of humankind through top-tier research, cross-cutting pedagogical methods, and sharing the known and unknown stories and histories of all peoples. 

“We are committed to diversity and equity for excellence,” said Johnson. 

This includes a commitment to share the stories of unsung heroes and heroines and how they can inspire us today.