A History of Heroes

Illustration for article titled A History of Heroes
Photo: Shanaé Brown
America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

I became black at age 7.

I was in second grade, missing two front teeth, and talking a mile a minute to my mom while she stood at the stove, telling her about my newest school project.

I’d been instructed that day by my teacher, Ms. Jefferson, to go into our extensive elementary library and choose a hero.

“Oh my child, I have failed you,” my mom’s perpetual red nails and soft hands cupped my cheeks after I told her who I’d chosen.


I didn’t know how she’d failed me, only that it was dire enough to stop her mid-stir, the sweet aroma from the skillet of hamburger meat, diced hot dogs, baked beans and whatever other mama magic she threw in, my favorite “junk meal”—which she aptly called meaty beanies—enveloping the air around us.

We’d learned all about biographies in class. The assignment was tailor-made for a dramatic child like me: Find a famous hero in history you admired, and deliver their autobiography to the class in first person, dressed as them. I was hype. Dressing up in costumes was and still is one of my favorite things to do. This was essentially a one-person play. My little heart was nearly bursting.

Ms. Jefferson had directed us to circular tables packed with stacks of 20-30 page books, shiny illustrated covers full of proud, stately looking adults staring off into the distance. Men with white hair in judge robes, women with long black hair in business suits. A solemn bearded man in a tall top hat: Abraham Lincoln. I knew who he was. We’d been learning about famous heroes all week: Abe Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin.

I circled one of the tables, skipping past the mostly male faces, looking for someone that seemed interesting until a woman with red hair smiled up at me, thumbs-upping from the cockpit of a plane.


Amelia Earhart. She looked cool and I liked her hat; that was enough for me. I picked it up, excited to go shopping for a pilot cap and jacket.

I’d just told my mom this proudly, holding up the shiny square book, when she came over to me.


“But, why didn’t you choose a black woman?” she asked, genuinely confused.

I pondered that. Well, I didn’t really know any famous black people except for MLK and the people on television, and I didn’t want to wear a fake mustache. Besides, Sean, the only other black kid in my grade (but not in my class), was going to be him.


I shrugged. “Didn’t see any.” It was true. But it was also true that it hadn’t even occurred to me to look. I was the sole black student in a classroom full of blonde and brunette heads, one of maybe four or five black kids in a school that housed hundreds of kindergarten through sixth graders. White was the default, being the other was my norm. I was suddenly deeply ashamed of this.

My mom called someone, distressed at my answer, and 30 minutes later my aunt showed up carrying a heavy, brown book half the size of my body. She set it down on the coffee table with a thud.


“You have a whole rich history of heroes, little girl. Let’s learn about them.”

And so I did.

The result was the greatest depiction of Harriet Tubman to ever bless a second grade class. I had never heard of this amazing woman, so bad ass and strong-willed. I poured my heart and amateur acting skills into that autobiography, educating the entire class on how I’d helped hundreds of slaves escape the chains of evil white men.


For the rest of the year, I wrote an essay for my aunt and mom every two weeks on someone from that big book of black heroes. I became deeply aware of my blackness. I walked with my head a little higher, a rich history of greatness behind me. Of course, I’d always known I was black. But that day, I became black. I felt it.

That experience was embedded from that day on. When I look back through the years, one of the main motifs of my life has been a desire to surround myself with greatness and with a black experience. It is what led me to leave my all-white school district for a more diverse one in high school. It is what convinced me that I only needed to apply to Spelman College, with no plan B, after seeing A Different World—a seemingly magical utopia full of passionate, smart black people—and being disappointed that Hillman wasn’t a real school.


Even when I had to leave prematurely, I found an equally as great circle with which to enwrap myself. Being as proud and as black as possible became my default, which when combined with my newly discovered love of writing prose and poetry, led me to many, many spoken-word open mic nights and an online poetry community. We joke about it now, but the hotep-ness of my 20s was a shelter, a kind of comforting blanket of superblack. My friends had names like Legacy and King Wise and Future. I spoke of kings and queens and chakras and funks in right thighs, and I meant it.

Now, I once again often find myself the only afroed head in large corporate rooms, and I have somehow managed to end up with a man who is not only not black, but so not black that he had never heard a Beyoncé song before we met. The difference this time is I know that not only do I belong, I make better every room I enter. White is no longer the default in my world. The bougie black girl magic that emanates has taken a lifetime to cultivate, and I am proud to own it. I have been shaped by the symphony of praise and critical lessons from black women like my mom and aunt. There is nothing and no one else I’d rather be.


And that, I think, was the goal of my mother so long ago in that kitchen, when she stopped mid-stir to tell me that I already had a history of heroes.

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This is incredibly beautiful. I’m so glad you had such a strong, invested, passionate matriarchy there with you to celebrate black history and black excellence! I wish I could say the same for myself as an immigrant. There aren’t many who look like me who have been able to influence American history. And I’ve lived here too long to feel connected to my home country. I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged anywhere.

But I’m going to take a page from your book and just celebrate me! My cultural identity might be neither here nor there, but I am here, I’m a person of color, and my piecemeal exposure to cultures still is meaningful and still contributes to the diversity of human experience. Thank you for encouraging the love of self and the honoring of where we have come from.