Can You Name Five?

Kellie Carter Jackson
Kellie Carter Jackson

At this morning’s Black History Month celebration, keynote speaker Kellie Carter Jackson described the “Name 5” game she plays with her students on the first day of class. The challenge of naming five famous people in each of these categories (African Americans, Latino Americans, disabled Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans) regularly stumps Ms. Carter Jackson’s history students at Harvard, just as it did when she taught at Gonzaga University, but how can she fault them when, too often, history is told by the winners?

View from the balcony in MIT's Walker Hall
View from the balcony in MIT’s Walker Hall

Ms. Carter Jackson believes she and her fellow historians must combat “the danger of the single story,” a term she learned listening to a TED Talk by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. She said that Black History Month celebrations focus year-in and year-out on a few well-known figures, like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks, and overlook the many others who played significant roles, like William Still, John S. Rock, and Claudette Colvin. When we credit Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation for ending slavery, we forget that 250,000 slaves fought and died in the Civil War and that almost half a million slaves escaped and freed themselves. Martin Luther King has a holiday named in his honor, but who commemorates the Poor People’s Campaign following his assassination? Finally, Barack Obama will be remembered as our first African American president, but we must not forget that the first black candidate for the nation’s highest office was a woman, Shirley Chisholm, in 1972.

This real danger of the single story, Ms. Carter Jackson warned, is that it creates and perpetuates stereotypes. “There are 40 million African Americans in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black,” she said.

Watch the video tribute we played at our Black History Month event. There are some famous faces from the past and the present and, we hope, the future.

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