By MaLaysia Mitchell | Publisher
Growing up in the public school system, the narratives I most often heard of African Americans began with slavery and ended with the Civil Rights Movement. To learn more about the centuries worth of Black contributions, I either had to dig through the chunky encyclopedia of African American history in my grandmother’s bedroom closet or take trips with my mother to visit military museums that shared the stories of Black veterans.
These opportunities to learn more about unsung Black heroes were invaluable. I gained the needed inspiration to make my own mark on society and learned that my aspirations were achievable.
Three Hidden Figures
Historically, the profound impact of Blacks have been consciously hidden, deemed irrelevant. Our contributions were knowingly appropriated for the betterment of all of society with little honor or credit. However, the courage of Black leadership hasn’t been deterred by systematic oppression or the ungained favor of society at large.
The great Dorothy I. Height, leader of the National Council of Negro Women, wrote in her memoir, “My mother helped me understand how not to show off what I knew, but how to use it so that others might benefit.”
Despite lesser recognition for her work, Dorothy was a leading organizer for the 1963 March on Washington and staunchly fought against the lynching practices of the justice system.
Throughout time, the heart of Black leadership has been the community, and its passion, creating a just society for all.
Take Madame CJ Walker: Although known for being one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the hair care industry, she had a vision of an ideal and just society during the development of her business model. She looked beyond her own gain and invested in scholarships to support women, provided employment specifically for the Black community, and ruled that only women could serve as president within the company. Her business mission is exemplary of other-centered leadership.
This heart can also be seen in the work of Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, Gregory A. Adams. As a leader in the healthcare space, his work expands access to affordable and quality care for everyone.
In an interview with Nurse Leader, Adams stated, “When I look at my life, I feel fortunate to be passionate about healthcare. It has been the foundation of much of my life. It is in my DNA to help produce a healthier nation. I’m committed to decreasing adverse experiences that impact health.”
If history is our teacher, American society is disserviced by sidelining the stories and experiences of its Black leaders. In a time when America remains divided, championing other-centered frameworks and building up disenfranchised communities may be the key to bringing us all together.
Just last month we watched history unfold as the country’s most diverse Presidential Cabinet was confirmed and Kamala Harris was sworn into her position as the first Black, South Asian, and female Vice President. Regardless of one’s political agenda, this is a big win for history-telling as it forces minority stories to be centered. This momentous achievement will mark the face of leadership.
The legacy of our leading Black figures informs and inspires us as Americans. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in Black History Month and continue the work of the racial equity even during the pandemic.
Here Are Four Ways How
1. Participate in a Black History Month event. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is hosting a virtual festival with free events throughout the month. You can also check out celebrations held by your local community centers, universities, and churches, many of which are virtual and free in 2021!
2. Support Black leaders. Blacks are often appointed into leadership during the lowest points of an organization, which can result in enormous pressure upon those individuals, especially when there’s already a pre-existing lack of support.
Former President Barack Obama was elected during the 2008 recession, and Kamala Harris was appointed to office during the COVID-19 pandemic, both during events unprecedented since the early 20th Century.
Similar pressures exist on the community level, too, with Black nonprofit leaders lacking support as they advance. Thus, if you’re a leader of an organization or have some amount of influence, consider sponsoring a Black leadership training through one of the following:
- McKinsey Black Leadership Academy
- National African American Women’s Leadership Institute
- African American Board Leadership Institute
- African American Leadership Academy
3. Continuously seek all sides of the story. Narratives focus on the chosen protagonist, but there is so much more to see by investigating the supporting characters.
For instance, if you’re reading about the March on Washington, which is famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, consider the stories of those who were present from the many civil rights organizations, churches, and communities.
Who helped plan the march? Who served in Congress at the time? You might find leaders like Buyard Rustin who fought not only for civil rights but also for gay rights. Unsung heroes may resonate with your story and inspire your work toward racial justice.
4. Practice being other-centered. Find a way to serve in your community this month. In what ways can you pay goodness forward, especially toward those who are marginalized?
Before Cicely Tyson died, she too crafted an other-centered legacy, declaring, “I want to be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves.”
May we follow in her footsteps; a more just and equitable world starts with us. Happy Black History Month!