The Day I Learned About Harlem

It's not enough to acknowledge the problem of white ignorance of Black history. It's up to us to correct it.

It never occurred to me to wonder why Harlem is a predominantly Black neighborhood in New York City.

This fact is likely the first thing I ever knew about New York. Growing up during the ’70s and ’80s, the Harlem Globetrotters were pervasive in popular culture. The famous exhibition basketball team had that name, despite having started in the 1920s in Chicago, because an early manager came up with it to connect the all-Black team to the Harlem Renaissance.

A white kid in mid-Missouri, at some point I learned that Harlem was a place where a lot of Black people lived because of a branding decision made half a century earlier.

At no point, however, did I ever learn why so many Black people came to live there. It never crossed my mind to delve into the history. Not growing up, not in the six years I actually lived in Manhattan, and not in the years since I moved away. Harlem was simply a majority Black neighborhood, a fact that did not trigger any further interrogation from me.

That all changed during protests over the murder of George Floyd.

There was something particularly stark about seeing police officers around the country brutalize protesters, fully aware that police brutality against Black people was the very thing being protested, and that the nation’s attention was fixed on those protests. If law enforcement personnel so readily gassed and beat people, as I was witnessing in footage taken from city after city, even when the most rudimentary grasp of public relations would have suggested a moratorium on those tactics, then there was no reason to believe this kind of thing wasn’t being carried out even more forcefully prior to the protests.

Truly fixing a system racist enough to gas peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital for the sake of a presidential photo opportunity required me to consider my own participation in it.

It was around this time that I saw a book recommendation on Twitter. Kara Brown, a Black woman who is a writer in Los Angeles, suggested that people wanting to know more about Black history in this country should read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. So I did.

The book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration, during which millions of Black Americans left the oppression they faced in the South under Jim Crow for the relative freedom to be found in other parts of the country over the span of many decades in the last century. While it focuses primarily on the stories of three central figures as they journey from Southern origins to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, it meanders frequently to fully communicate the lived reality for so many Black people under our country’s racist legacy.

Wilkerson describes the status and success that many Black people achieved during Reconstruction, only to see that status and success slowly eroded under Jim Crow until they were once again victims of egregious exploitation, grievous inequality, and horrific violence.

The book’s perspective shifts between the broad and the particular, documenting both the overarching story of large numbers of Black people resettling around the country after leaving the South, and honing in on the myriad ways racism directly affected the daily lives of Black Americans. 

And, in one aside, she tells how Harlem, due to low demand by other tenants, was the only neighborhood sufficiently hospitable for many Black people arriving in New York City to establish a home, driven from other areas by predatory landlords or outright exclusion. As with so many things in America, the reason Harlem became a majority-Black neighborhood is racism.

Learning this particular historical fact filled me with embarrassment. 

Embarrassment not only at the chasm of my own ignorance, but at my incuriosity. Embarrassment at accepting that a large population of minoritized people just happened to live in a certain neighborhood without giving it a second thought.

Page after page, I learned things about my country that had never come up in any classroom. The book paints a vivid picture of how pervasive racism is in the United States, and the lengths that Black people have had to go to in order to survive despite it. 

Reading it, however, was not the first time I was embarrassed when confronted with my ignorance of Black history in America.

I avoid much public mention, both in my writing and on social media, that three of my own children are Black. This is not simply in the interest of their privacy; it is that their identities belong to them, not me. Being their parent does not confer any authority or lend me more credibility as a white person on the topic of race. 

I don’t have rights to their stories.

That said, when my husband and I knew we were to be parents of Black children, we knew there were responsibilities to them we had to take seriously. Among them was making sure they were surrounded by stories about people who looked like them—which, of course, includes bedtime stories.

Sometime early last year, I sat down next to my daughter’s bed to read a little bit, and picked up Little Leaders by Vashti Harrison. It is subtitled Bold Women in Black History. Each page has the biography of a different Black woman who accomplished something great over the course of American history.

Many I knew. Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks from the parts of Black history my education deigned to include. Famous performers or athletes like Josephine Baker and Althea Gibson. Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Zora Neale Hurston. 

Then there were the names I didn’t recognize. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to become a doctor in the United States. Charlotte E. Ray, the first Black woman in the country to graduate law school. Alice Ball, whose credit for research into treatment for leprosy was stolen by a white man after she died, though finally discovered to belong to her by historians decades later.

So many barriers broken by Black women I’d never heard of, and likely never would have were it not for a children’s book I picked up by happenstance. I was embarrassed to realize it.

The vast majority of historical figures I could name, from the truly great to those who are little more than answers to trivia questions, are white. But it does no disservice to Elizabeth Blackwell, whose name I know because she was the first woman to become a physician in America, to say that the Black woman who accomplished the same thing deserves the same degree of note in our history books. It is embarrassing to realize I never wondered whose achievements were omitted from my education. 

How many generations of American schoolchildren have been taught a bullshit story about George Washington and a cherry tree, paying no mind to the people he enslaved, but were never asked to consider the character it would take to overcome all the bigotry faced before becoming the first Black woman physician in the United States?

When I recall the Black history that made its way into my childhood education, my memory comprises a focus on slavery and the Civil War (with heavy focus on Abraham Lincoln) and a little bit about the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a gesture toward Langston Hughes and a nod to George Washington Carver. A tidy little package that fits easily into the short month we “generously” award every year to Black history.

Otherwise ignoring the history of Black Americans affords white Americans a couple of complimentary benefits. It allows us to see all the advantages we are born into as the natural order of things, all the ways society is tailored to our benefit simply based on how things would be expected to turn out. It lets us paper over our privilege so we can pretend it isn’t there, along with all the ways our country has been engineered to maintain it from its founding until today.

Conversely, it erases all the harm inflicted on Black people to achieve those ends. To be advantaged requires someone else to be disadvantaged, after all, and privileges aren’t privileges if everyone gets to have them. Genuine attention to Black history requires us to face the suffering white people created and perpetuated for the sake of our gain. By focusing solely on slavery and the civil rights movement, our whitewashed history lessons support a narrative of problems we can decide have already been solved, and lets us blame any remaining disadvantages Black people face on them. It obviates any question of whether Black Americans are owed anything—they are—or whether it might be time for our privileges to be in any way diminished.

Should anyone doubt that white American historical ignorance is a product of deliberate and ongoing effort, they need look no further than the vehemence  from conservatives to The 1619 Project, a reexamination of American history published by The New York Times. As to why conservatives unleashed such vitriol? Well, for the creators of the project having the temerity to suggest that an accurate accounting of American history starts with a foundation laid on the institution of slavery, and that the ramifications of slavery and racism have been central to our history ever since. It doesn’t get more obvious than a Republican member of the Senate calling for a ban on teaching it in schools.

This intentional ignorance is morally indefensible. If there is any hope of making the United States a more just nation, it demands that white Americans acknowledge that too-often deliberate ignorance, accept that exclusion of Black history in the lessons we have learned about our country was and remains by design, and take steps to educate ourselves about stories we have chosen to treat as unimportant.

Further, if white Americans leave advocacy for comprehensively including Black history in American education to Black people to accomplish on their own, we compound our failure and our complicity. This is a problem created by us. The responsibility for remedying it is ours. It is a responsibility that is both personal and collective. 

We need go no further than the places we live. Should you live somewhere that remains notably racially segregated, consider asking how it came to be so, rather than simply accepting it as a given fact. It’s very likely that there’s an easily found connection between that history and the policies that would need to change to dismantle that segregation now. Things like the placement of highways, or who was given access to federally insured mortgages, or which neighborhoods have superior transit options

But we need to break this constant cycle of ignorance by starting in schools when children are young. The business of bending our children’s education toward a more truthful telling is mundane, unglamorous, and laborious. It is the stuff of school boards, Parent Teacher Associations, and similar bodies established to give the community a say in how its kids are taught. But unless we take seriously the task of examining and reforming the curricula we choose, it will be the same selective and biased understanding of our history being transmitted to another generation.

At the very least, we can start with ourselves. We can admit that we accepted as the whole truth the heavily edited narrative about our country we were taught because it was convenient to do so. There is no time like the present to learn harder but better lessons about what America has always been, consider how many of the things given to us had been taken from someone else, and try to make the real changes necessary for our nation to actually become what white Americans have told ourselves it already was.

I have a book to recommend for anyone who cares to get started.