The following article was written by our guest blogger Shannon Polk. Shannon is a licensed attorney, mother, wife, associate pastor and world traveler. She is also a public speaker and lives her life to encourage and motivate women, especially women of color, to succeed in today's world. We also featured Shannon as a Kathy of the Month. Read part one and part two of her interviews.
A close friend who works in the business sector asked me to name some business and political leaders from the Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities. After some head scratching, while I was able to easily name several African American leaders, especially women, I frustratingly realized that I was only able to name a few Latinas, a handful of Asian leaders and no non-historical Native American leaders. My inability to rattle of the names of leaders of color hurt my feelings. I consider myself a champion for people of color. But if that were true, why wasn’t I able to name my role models from these other communities as quickly as I could name my Black heroes.
From an early age, I began to seek out women who looked like me and I read their biographies. My dear friend and I would exchange title recommendations from the Black Literature section at the public library. I became enamored with Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Huston, and Ntosake Shange. I devoured Essence and Ebony magazines where the pages reflected every shade and style of Blackness. Seeing those women with their curly fros and mahogany skin nourished my fragile teenage self-image. Those articles inoculated me from a Eurocentric culture where Blackness was invisible at best and criminalized at worst.
I strive to provide that same intellectual armor to my daughter. She has a slew of Black dolls, books with Black characters and even a placemat that lists 100 Notable African Americans. During breakfast, we discuss history makers like Benjamin Banneker or Madam CJ Walker. My daughter has begun her journey of learning Black history.
Even school and church provided opportunities to learn. My elementary school teachers would assign Black History Month projects. Each student would research a key Black American leader and present that information to the class. My church would present a Black History program where the kids would recite Black history facts and sing the Black national anthem. I was surrounded by the knowledge of the contributions of my ancestors to the building of this nation.
However, my friend’s question made me painfully aware that I had unconsciously opted out of learning about other cultures with the same intensity. I didn’t have a school requirement or some other external factor that nudged me to learn about Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) history.
Unfortunately, in most documentaries, history books, and college classes about the United States, people of color are often omitted or mentioned within very narrow historical parameters: slavery, trail of tears, Japanese internment camps. We are truly hidden figures. Without intentionality directed toward learning about people of color, most Americans stay in their identity bubble, unaware of all the great information that they are missing.
When I realized my lack of knowledge, I immediately began a Google search for who are the top 100 Asian American leaders? Latino leaders? Native American leaders?
My goal was to identify some new role models in my career field as well as develop a better understanding how these other POC groups contributed to the creation and development of the United States. I wanted to increase the visibility of these groups in my mind.
And then I realized why so many non-Black people struggle with the concept of Black history month. Black History month highlights well known and little-known facts about people who made significant contributions to our nation. However, most non-Black people are unaware of this history. Who wants to admit that your educational system failed to include BIPOC groups in teaching the story of your nation and that as a result of that failure you can’t intelligently speak to the contributions of your neighbors?! Who wants to admit that there is an entire community of people who are invisible in your daily life? Understanding the contributions of BIPOC people to the country, both historically and presently, increases my compassion as well as my appreciation for each of these groups.
When I read about the incoming class of U.S. representatives and saw all those women of color, I saw a Congress where my womanhood and the reality of other BIPOC couldn’t be ignored or erased.
I’m inspired by the stories of women who have also experienced bias, discrimination, and prejudiced and overcome those barriers. Their stories become my stories. My soul expands. I learn new ways to strengthen my resolve and pursue my calling because I realize that I’m standing on their shoulders. Next time someone asks me about BIPOC sheroes, I’ll have an answer because that history is my history too.
By the way, Black history is your history too.
Knowledge is power. Here are some book recommendations to continue to grow your knowledge and speak truth about all cultures:
Raise your voice by Kathy Khang
A Sojourner's truth by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
Glory Happening by Kaitlin Curtice
Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing our Influence by Natalia Kohn Rivera, Noemi Vega Quinones, and Kristy Garza Robinson
Have more book recommendations? Leave us a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.