Black History Month: Unseen Heroes

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February/March 2021

February is Black History Month, which ushers in the annual parade of familiar figures: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Barack Obama. Although these people are well- deserving of their respect and recognition, the approach to teaching Black history by showcasing a few individuals ignores the contributions of countless others who shaped history and obscures how large-scale change happens. Idolization also tends to eclipse
leaders’ humanity, making them seem one-sided.

Black History Month deserves a national reckoning, and thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, that might be happening. Although this process involves more than just re-centering a few select heroes, many individuals deserve their due. Here are a few influential figures we – at Hoofprints – think our readers should know about:

Ella Baker

Ella Baker (1903-1986) was a Civil Rights and human rights activist who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the main Civil Rights youth group in the 1960s. Baker was largely a behind-the-scenes organizer but has been called the backbone of the Civil Rights movement. She once noted, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me.” While popular Civil Rights groups of the day were focused on turning out strong, charismatic leaders – such as Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – Baker favored people- centered movements. The SNCC made decisions based on participatory democracy, while the SCLC relied on a church-like hierarchy. Baker explained: “The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

 

 

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) was a blues singer, pianist, and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Although frequently harassed for wearing men’s clothing, she was an unapologetic lesbian and drag king. She performed at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House and the Ubangi Club, dressed in her signature white tuxedo, tails, and top hat. She was widely popular, well known for her deep, growling voice and trumpet-like scat. Bentley enraptured audiences by singing raunchy lyrics to popular songs and flirting with women. Langston Hughes described her as “an amazing exhibition of musical energy – a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard – a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”

 

 

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was a Civil Rights leader and women’s and voting rights activist. She was raised in a family of sharecroppers, and in her youth, picked up to 300 pounds of cotton a day. Hamer became involved with the SNCC and SCLC and learned about her constitutional right to vote. She was adamant about exercising this right, despite facing discriminatory literacy tests, poll taxes, and physical and sexual attacks from both law enforcement and vigilante racists. She served as a field secretary for voter registration and welfare programs for the SNCC, co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. The latter sought to create economic self- sufficiency among Black farmers so they would not end up penniless after being fired for voting, as Hamer had been. A powerful speaker, she was derided as “illiterate” because of her lack of formal education and deep southern accent. Hamer helped thousands of Black Mississippians register to vote over her
lifetime. “I guess if I had any sense,” she once said, “I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a
time since I could remember.”

 

 

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

Dr. Corbett is making modern-day history as a research fellow and scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Vaccine Research Center (VRC). Along with Dr. Barney Graham, she led the NIH team that developed the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, which has an efficacy rate of 94.1%. Dr. Corbett has also been at the forefront of promoting the vaccine to Black and Brown communities, which have been devastated by centuries of medical injustice caused by scientists, doctors, and the US government. It is time, she said, for the medical profession to “own up to and apologize for it, and…provide an end for those communities to receive equitable health care and vaccine[s] like we are trying to do today.”

 

Let us take the time to honor and celebrate these women, who put in countless hours to better all of our lives. However, as scholar Imani Perry reminds us, “Social change is never wrought by individuals. Movement is a collective endeavor and the romantic ideal of the hero obscures that truth.” More important than any individual hero is the collective work of hundreds of thousands of people. That is the work that makes any great deed possible, and
that is what makes history.