Oh, Harriet! Black History Month Blunders and Progress

by Carmen Woodruff
Carmen Woodruff

“Lacey used to have these Black history checks. Each check had a different Black hero on it. MLK, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass. So, Lacey was at a store chatting with the cashier and they’re having fun. After she’s all rung up, Lacey handed the young white cashier a check with a picture of Harriet Tubman on it and the cashier said, ‘Wow! You have checks with your picture on ‘em?’”

– Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar,
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism

Hilarious, yet uncomfortable. Awkward, but outrageous. Well-intentioned, maybe offensive?

It kind of reminds me of Black History Month as a kid.

First came MLK Day and then of course February, the shortest month of the year. I remember more often than not in my primary years — first, second and maybe even third grade — sitting next to classmates who enthusiastically grabbed for a black marker or crayon to color Dr. King’s entire face with passion and purpose, almost bleeding the black through our beige desks.

I had mixed feelings. One one hand, this was my fellow student and friend. On the other, I was still learning about colors too but I knew for sure that Dr. King was brown like me and tried to scoot my artistic interpretation into my peer’s peripheral to hint, hint that although it was Black History Month, a better crayon color selection may have been Crayola’s Burnt Sienna or just everyday Brown, like me. Thank goodness today’s young people have Colors of the World!

Trails continued to blaze by the time I reached middle school. Stockings were finally available in most skin tones and my mom conscientiously helped me sift through the naturals, bares, and beiges to find my perfect fit, Hanes Silk Reflections Barely There. They served me well as I got ready for church functions, musical performances and bar and bat mitzvahs. This was prime middle school teenage time, folks. Unlike my grandmother, my pantyhose would actually blend in with my legs. This was progress.

I recall admiring my classmates’ coming of age recitations and feeling welcomed so warmly by my neighbors and friends at local events, confident in my grown-up stockings and kitten heels. Alright, I’ll forgive that classmate or two who colored Dr. King black. These were newer days and those little girl recollections began to fade as I stepped into young womanhood slowly but surely.

“Is that dirt on your face?”

The bus bounced up and down, early morning high school style and I wasn’t even offended. I guess by that point I’d developed a thick skin, no pun intended. “No,” I explained to my classmate, “it’s a new liquid make-up I’m trying.” Mental note to self, although there were initiatives to include all shades of beauty, the cosmetic companies still had a lot of work to do to make sure the blending process was a little smoother, especially for self-conscious gals in the ninth grade. I don’t think I’ve ever shared that story but to this day, sponge wedges are my best friend!

“What color are you?”

I remember babysitting for our neighbors. As we were getting ready for bed, the child directly inquired about my color and asked why we were different. I looked right into his inquisitive blue eyes and felt kind of lucky in a way to be the first person to share my thoughts with him about the matter.

“People come in all colors and shapes and sizes. But everyone should make sure to treat each other with love and kindness. Always get to know people who look different than you and appreciate them. Learn from them,” I said. And that was that and he went to bed.

All in all, I can say I’m grateful for my community and the open door dialogue that’s always existed when it comes to race and cultural differences yet the similarities that tie us together as one, especially during the time of pandemic when it all comes down to the simple things: family, faith, health and happiness. Authors like Robin DeAngelo extend the conversation as we quarantine and Zoom in the comfort of our homes to explore uncomfortable topics.

Through the lens of a Black woman, the progressive efforts for our faces to be recognized and our voices to be heard are appreciated, but more often than not, the familiarity is blurry or the follow-through has an FCC type of delay, kind of similar to the U.S. presidential voting results we agonized over last November.

As women, we hail queens Rosa (Parks), Kamala (Harris), Stacey (Abrams), Michelle (Obama), Keisha (Bottoms), Lori (Lightfoot), Maxine (Waters) and the list goes on. Black women were deemed to be the movers and shakers of the 2020 election and will go down in history as so.

Stacey Abrams has been touted as a modern day Harriet Tubman and most recently National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman will be the first-ever spoken word performer to grace the superspreader, I mean Super Bowl stage next week. The torch blazes back and forth as we remember those before us and those who intentionally speak out for better opportunities, calling us out on our blunders.

Sojourner Truth so eloquently inquired, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Yes, indeed you are. We all band together in the name of gender equality now more than ever but please, think twice, before you call your girlfriend, customer or neighbor “Michelle” or “Harriet” for that matter. Take a breath and double check. We just may very well see Harriet Tubman on a 20 dollar bill one day very soon.

Hold onto your checkbooks, everyone and double check your chats, so there’s no distraction and failed doppelganger outbursts.

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