Know Your History, Claim Your Humanity

Christian Starling at the podium
Christian Starling at the podium

High school humanities teacher Christian Starling opened this year’s Black History Month assembly with a welcome speech that reflected on the special importance of studying history for an oppressed people. A Harvard graduate, Mr. Starling joined the CCSC faculty this year. His speech drove home how fortunate we are to have him at CCSC. The full speech is here:

Black History Month Welcome Remarks by Christian Starling

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Community Meeting, and welcome to our celebration of Black History Month.  At least 2/3 of the 11s know me as their US History teacher, so this will be part US History lesson.  I beg your pardon in advance.

So.

“What, to the American Slave, is your Fourth of July?”

Frederick Douglass said that on July 5, 1852, a little under 10 years before the beginning of the American Civil War, to the Rochester, NY Ladies Antislavery Society.  Douglass was a former slave, and a leader in the Abolitionist movement.  He was asked to speak in celebration of the 4th of July, and the freedom and possibility it represented.  And this was how he ended his speech.  He wondered, how can I celebrate a holiday of freedom, when my people are still in bondage?  He said that it was a day of mourning, of sadness, for people like him.  Why should he celebrate?  He has nothing to celebrate.

You may be wondering something similar.  Why am I here to celebrate Black History Month?

You may be wondering this for a few reasons.

First reason: “But, Mr. Starling, I’m not even black!!!”

Friends, this is a good point.  But, I’m sure we can agree on a few things.  We sit here, part of an American school, and we’re all trying to take part in the American dream, even if you aren’t American.

I submit this to you my friends: This country was built on the backs of slaves, and almost torn apart over the question of whether or not African slaves were, in fact, African-Americans, or cattle.  Whenever you talk about the soul of America, you HAVE to talk the fate of Black people.  They are one and the same.

Your second reason might sound a bit like Mr. Douglass’s.

“What, to the young Black person in America, is Black History Month? 

Why must I care about history, when there are real dangers to me right now?  When everyone says that my future is bleak?  When I live in a world with Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon and Aiyana?  When danger is around every corner, even when I’m just trying to leave Mattapan and get on the trolley and get to school?  When, as Lauryn Hill put it in her masterpiece, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” ‘it seems we lose the game, before we even start to play’?  Why should I celebrate?  I have nothing to celebrate.”

Friends, this is a good point.

And, as I often encourage you to do, I’m going to lean on minds stronger than my own to help me make my point.

First,

Many of us know who this is.  Malcolm X, prominent leader of the Nation of Islam.  He said this:

“History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.”

My great-grandparents left the killing fields of Mississippi after the death of Emmett Till, a young man lynched and murdered because he spoke to a married white woman.  My great grandmother said it was because “they didn’t treat us like people down there.  They treated us like animals.”

Without history, we are less than human.  Know your history to claim and honor your humanity.

Anybody know who this is?  Elaine Brown.  She was the last leader of the Black Panthers.  A woman!  This is what she said about history in her book, A Taste of Power:

“When I was a little girl, I wanted to be white.  My mother sent me to schools dominated by rich white children where I learned that I was a “nigger.” Oh, that wasn’t because anybody called me that, but because I saw I was poor and black… By the time I realized there was no place in America for a black girl, I discovered another trick.  Even if I had been able to be white, there were no paths out of the powerlessness.  The keys to the kingdom were gripped in the hands of a few white men – and only men.  I could work for those men, if I “behaved,” but I could never be them, have what they had, be master of my own ship… What I saw was that my oppression and my freedom were umbilically tied to the oppression and freedom of all my people.”

Know your history so that you can see how closely connected we all are.  Know your history to be the master of your own ship.

Slide4Lastly, a real luminary of black history.  My mother.  I was talking with her one day, and thanking her for reading to me when I was younger.  I was also complaining about the weird books we read, because I didn’t have like, Dr. Seuss.  I had books about Nat Turner, who was a slave who possibly heard God talk to him and coordinated one of the largest slave revolts in history.  He slit his owners’ throat.  Real good bedtime reading.  One of them was called “Afrobets.”  No, really.  It looked like this.

I said, hey, what’s with this book?  It’s black kids making themselves into shapes.  That’s weird, right?

She said, I wanted books full of black kids that looked like you.  I said, why?

She said, because important, beautiful people go in books.  I needed you to know how beautiful you are.

There are two implicit understandings of history, and of the country we live in, in that statement.

  1. The world will not tell me how beautiful I am.  This was fact.  My mother was raising a black boy, a rare and endangered and precious thing, in Detroit, what people were calling the murder capitol of the US.  The world was not set up to tell me how beautiful I am.  The world was set up to kill me.  She knew that.
  2. There are, in fact, things that are beautiful about me.  I come from a long lineage of incredibly strong people.  There are kings and queens and scholars in my history.  I have something to be proud of.

Know your history, so that you can know how beautiful you are.

So.  What is the last reason we need to know this history?

Because of you.  You beautiful, brave kids still have to write this history.  When you are writing history, making your way in the world as tomorrow’s leaders, I think it would help to see where we’ve been, so we can see where we’re going.

It’s important for you to know your history, so that you can create what’s next.

Nothing less than the fate of this country rests on your shoulders.  Take that, and think it over.  Enjoy today’s programming, and have a wonderful break.  Thank you.

Black Panther Elaine Brown, Author of "A Taste of Power"
Black Panther Elaine Brown, Author of “A Taste of Power”

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