ASU professor's project emphasizes lesser-known elements of black history
We’ve all heard of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
But what about Juanita Blocker, Bayard Rustin, Chrystal Tulli, Ralph Bunche, Francois Andre, Connie Morgan, Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Eddie O'Jay, Arna Bontemps, Marsha P. Johnson, Victoria DeLee, Henry Armstrong, Sam Hose, Shirley Chisolm, Audre Lorde, Hazel Scott, Lorraine Hansberry, Marian Anderson, Benny Mason, Claudia Jones, Darwin Turner, Welford Wilson, Dollree Map, Pat Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Claudette Colvin, Irvin C. Miller, Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Ken Pressley, Ora Washington, Blanche Thompson, George Wilson Becton, Robert S. Pious, Clara Luper, Satchel Paige, Melba Moore, Josh Gibson and Phillis Wheatley?
These lesser-known — and in some cases even ordinary — people are just as much a part of black history, and each played a role in shaping the narrative of black life in America.
“Absolutely you should know about Rosa Parks, absolutely you should know about Martin Luther King,” but the fact is that there are and were amazing black people and communities everywhere, Arizona State University history professor Matthew Delmont said. Making an effort to learn more about what that looks like on an everyday basis, he added, “can help you re-envision what American history looks like.”
That was the impetus behind Delmont’s yearlong digital history project, Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers. Each day for a year, beginning on Martin Luther King Day in 2016, he posted a historical article from a black newspaper on the project website, sometimes tweeting them out as well. The articles featured everyday stories of black people in America.
The idea was to treat black history as a yearly subject — as Delmont put it, “black history 365.” One of his goals with Black Quotidian was to address how relegating black history to a single month makes it difficult to change the mainstream narrative of black life in America.
“You can only do so much in a month, but if you treat this as something that we should be approaching daily, it allows you to talk about everyday stories of black history and everyday stories of African-American life,” he said.
ASU Foundation Professor of English Neal Lester agrees. In his American literature course, Lester teaches black writers, including Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, as part of American canon, instead of separating them into their own category. To do that, Lester said, would suggest to him “that people don’t quite see this as a necessary part to be integrated into the fabric of the everyday. That somehow, it still needs to be teased out and separated.”
Before there was Black History Month, there was Negro History Week, established in 1926 at the behest of historian Carter G. Woodson. It was a “groundswell” movement, Delmont said, with black newspapers encouraging readers to write to Woodson for pamphlets on black history.
The reason behind Woodson’s and other historians’ and intellectuals’ push for the holiday was two-fold: First, at the time, there was almost total exclusion and distortion of black history being taught in schools — exclusion in that there was no mention of black people with any agency, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, and distortion in that slavery was presented as having been beneficial for black people.
Second, Delmont (shown below) explained, “There was a sense that history brings power. That if you have a more fully-formed sense of pioneers of black history – in terms of sciences, in terms of agriculture, in terms of business — that that can empower young people, and can empower any community member to envision different possibilities for their own future.”
From there, it spread through communities and across the country as teachers, religious leaders and parents took it upon themselves to share black history with their students, congregations and children. Fifty years later, in 1976, it became a month-long celebration following the civil rights movement, and schools began incorporating it into their curriculum.
Today, Delmont said, “We’ve come a long way in terms of presenting black history more accurately in mainstream textbooks — almost everyone who’s been through the American high school system knows Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks — but beyond that, there’s not really a deeper sense of what African American history has been about.
“It isn’t just about civil rights; it isn’t just about wonderful leaders or horrible things happening. It was very ordinary.” That was another thing Delmont hoped to do with Black Quotidian: “I wanted to reclaim the ability of black people to be ordinary.”
One story he came across through the project was that of Juanita Blocker, the first professional African-American bowler. “She’s not someone who’s going to get attention in most Black History Month retrospectives,” Delmont said, but her story is still one of the many threads that make up the fabric of American history.
“Any textbook you take, you should be able to thread through some aspect of African-American history,” he added. “And you could say the same thing about women’s history, and Latino history, etc. There’s no one single version of American history. It’s a story of different threads that you’re trying to pull together.”
Some of those other threads include the stories of Welford Wilson, a young boy from Harlem who took home the championship at the New York City Junior High School’s Oratory competition in 1929; Chrystal Tulli, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, who made the paper for directing a school play in 1932; and Francois Andre, who directed fashion shows and theater performances in L.A. during the 1950s.
“Exposing people to these histories can open up different perspectives,” Delmont said. A lack of exposure, however, can lead to the perpetuation of misunderstanding and stereotypes. “If you don’t have these sort of inter-personal relationships to understand people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, it’s hard to get a sense of what life might look like, what America might look like through their eyes.”