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Normalize Black History: 5 Extraordinary Black People in History

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Enobong Essien

Staff Writer

Enobong is a former professional dancer turned publicity and marketing assistant and life-long lover of books. Fully Nigerian and fully British, Enobong now lives in Chicago with her nonfiction enthusiast husband and peculiar yet adorable cat roommate.

“Growing up in the U.S., I was always taught Black history through a distorted white saviour lens. It came in small fragments, and always in the context of pain and trauma. The history I learned always highlighted what Black People didn’t have, instead of revealing what they have contributed.” —Marissa and Toya (@allegedlymari and @thereadingchemist).

The initial uproar surrounding George Floyd’s murder is dying down; Breonna Taylor’s name is no longer trending (and her murderers haven’t been arrested); the rioting has stopped so the news is no longer covering protests, and your Instagram feed is back to “normal”. So what happens now?

This is Where the Real Work Happens

For about a week my Instagram newsfeed was packed with stacks of books on anti-racism and critical race theory. Have you read them all yet? I’m going to guess no. And nor do I expect anyone to. Pick two, maybe three books from any of the stacks or lists offered, read them, reflect on them, discuss them, and then read something else. As someone who has been reading books on racism for far longer than just this past month, those books are heavy. It’s emotionally draining on anyone to read a whole bunch of them back-to-back.

And my other warning is, don’t let the only books you read about Black people be about how Black people have been victims of racism. Because that’s not helpful either.

Yes, racism is still very much alive and well and is a disease that we all have to keep working to destroy worldwide. But if you only think of Black people in terms of our oppression and our pain, then that leads to a whole other category of problems that often results in white savourism and virtue signalling.

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Growing up in the U.S, I was always taught Black history through a distorted white savior lens. It came in small fragments, and always in the context of pain and trauma. The history I learned always highlighted what Black People didn't have, instead of revealing what they have contributed. ⁣ ⁣ Mari (@allegedlymari ) and I are excited to announce the #NormalizeBlackHistory Challenge. We are hoping to flood Instagram with images of Black people thriving, loving, and living. One week from today, Friday July 3rd, we ask that you post about a Black figure and teach the rest of us a bit about them. ⁣ ⁣ Remember that Black History and African American History are two different things. You can feature any Black person you learn about.

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Normalize Black History

On July 3rd, my Instagram feed blew up with the #NormalizeBlackHistory campaign created by the above mentioned Marissa and Toya. A week earlier, both Bookstagrammers put out a call to “flood Instagram with images of Black people thriving, loving, and living.”

I enjoyed scrolling through this hashtag too much not to share. But I did notice something interesting: I noticed that the majority of Bookstagrammers who participated in this challenge were white. This isn’t a bad thing and I’m glad that white Bookstagrammers are invested in amplifying stories of Black people being successful. But the reason I don’t think many Black Bookstagrammers participated is because normalizing Black history is not a special event for us; it’s our whole feed.

Last February, I posted a list of 10 underrated books to read for Black history month, highlighting many overlooked Black people in history. And I and many of the Black Bookstagrammers I follow celebrate Black history way beyond whichever month our country of residence has set aside for it. So I advise following any of the Bookstagrammers on this list of Black Bookstagrammers from Read It Forward or this list from Buzzfeed if you are honestly seeking to diversify your feed.

However, I do still love this incentive to normalize Black history and below you will find five of my favourites, the books to read to learn more about them, and the Bookstagrammers who took the time to share what they have learnt.

1. Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm

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#NormalizeBlackHistory hosted by @thereadingchemist & @allegedlymari ⠀ ✨Do you know Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm? ⠀ Daughter of a factory worker and a maid, she was ⠀ * the first Black woman to be elected to Congress * the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States * a catalyst for change in America in the 1970s ⠀ and she wrote a book about it… 📚 Unbought and unbossed by Shirley Chisholm ⠀ 💬 ” That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.” -Shirley Chisholm ⠀ She paved the way for our beloved 44th @barackobama ! She was unapologetically fashionable and didn't bite her tongue on anything! ”Unbought & Unbossed” was the slogan for her first congressional campaign. ⠀ Did you know her? ⠀ 💋xoxo, Kat ⠀ ⠀ P.S. Now it's time for my obligatory hashtag rant! We can all learn to be an #AntiRacist 🙌🏾 Let's all try to read more #Blackliterature because #Blackbooksmatter & #Blackstorieshavepower ✊🏾I ❤️ #Diversereads  I ❤️ #Diversespines I ❤️ #Diversebooks! I am here to #Diversifybookstagram! 👋🏾Hi haters! #unboughtandunbossed ⠀ 😂Shoutout to #Blackbookstagram 🤜🏾🤛🏾 *Fist Bump* You already know #Representationmatters This review is #Ownvoices Whoop! Whoop! 🤗 Like, Comment, Share to #AmplifyBlackvoices & #AmplifyMelanatedVoices  👍🏾 Sincerely, #BlackGirlReading 📚

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Shirley Chisholm was the daughter of a factory worker and a maid, and yet she was also the first Black woman to be elected into congress and the first Black woman to make a bid for the presidency of the United States.

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.” —Shirley Chisholm.

Read more about her in her book Unbought and Unbossed.

2. Dr Marie Maynard Daly

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Happy Friday Everyone! Today is the day! Today is the #NormalizeBlackHistory challenge that @allegedlymari and I are cohosting. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I present you Dr. Marie Maynard Daly. Dr. Daly was the first Black female (in the US) to receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1947, which was from Columbia University. Now to put this into context, the first female (from the US) to receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry was Dr. Rachel Lloyd in 1887. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Dr. Daly studied the enzymes responsible for food digestion. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Dr. Daly started off her career as a physical science instructor at Howard before returning to Columbia in 1955. Her work (in conjunction with her colleague Dr. Quentin B. Hemming) pioneered the discovery of the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Dr. Daly ultimately transferred to Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she studied the effects of smoke inhalation on lungs until she retired in 1986 (she passed away in 2003). ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ How amazing was Dr. Daly?!⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Now for stats today. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I was awarded my Ph.D. in (organic) Chemistry in 2019. By the time I defended, there were over 200 PhD students in my program, but I was the only one that was Black. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Out of all the doctorate degrees that have been conferred in Chemistry, only about 2% of them have been awarded to Black people. Less than 1% have been awarded to Black females. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ The racial disparity in STEM fields is atrocious. We must do better.

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Dr Daly was the first Black woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the US in 1947. Dr Daly’s work was one of the catalysts discovering the relationship between cholesterol and clogged arteries. Even now, less than 1% of the people awarded a PhD in chemistry are Black.

3. Matthew A Henson

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I'm so stoked that @allegedlymari & @thereadingchemist put together the #NormalizeBlackHistory challenge because I love, love, love history & learning – scrolling through the hashtag today has been so enlightening and interesting and I honestly can't get enough.⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ While searching through the internets for today's post, I found so many interesting people … but my eyes got round as saucers when I came across Matthew Henson, one of the first people EVER to reach the North Pole*.⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ Henson was born in Maryland in 1866 and moved to Georgetown with his family as a child. Following the deaths of his parents, he found his way back to Maryland & took a position as a cabin boy on a merchant ship captained by a man named Childs. Childs took Henson under his wing, teaching him to read and write.⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ A number of years later, Matthew Henson would become acquainted with explorer Robert E. Peary, a meeting that would prove to be very important for Henson's future. Henson became Peary's aid in his explorations for the next 20 years, describing himself as a "general assistant, skilled craftsperson, interpreter, and laborer." Henson was with Peary when the latter reached the North Pole – the first human expedition to do so – and planted the American flag himself.⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ Upon their return to America, Henson's contributions to the expedition were largely ignored (some reports stating that Henson was the only one that could communicate with the local Inuits, which in and of itself would have been a *massive* contribution).⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ It took some time, but Henson was eventually recognized for his amazing feats – admittance to the Explorers Club in NYC, a Polar Expedition Medal, & honors awarded to him by multiple presidents.⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ Having learned about Peary but NOT Henson in school (wth), I've already begun researching further reading on this topic! ⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ Swipe to see some more pictures of Matthew Henson – including one of him at the North Pole in 1909 with four Inuit men! ⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ SEROUSLY. SO. COOL. ⁣ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ (*in comments)

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Matthew A Henson is the first person to have ever reached the geographic North Pole. You may have been taught it was Robert Peary. It wasn’t. It was Henson. Henson was born to free parents who worked as sharecroppers in 1866 and started his career aged 12 as a cabin boy before being hired as Robert Peary’s personal valet. He studied Inuit survival techniques and learnt the language in order to act as interpreter for the other members of the crew.

You can read more about Henson in A Journey for the Ages.

4. General Thomas Alexandre Dumas

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Today is the #NormalizeBlackHistory challenge, created by @allegedlymari and @thereadingchemist. 🙌🏻 If you haven’t scrolled the hashtag yet, you’re missing out! . My contribution is General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of celebrated author Alexandre Dumas. . Born a to an African slave and a French nobleman in Saint-Dominque in 1762, Dumas was a slave himself until he traveled to France at 14 and his father freed him. He eventually dropped his father’s surname and took his mother’s name instead when he joined the French army, working his way up through the ranks from private to general. . He served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, where he gained a reputation for his bravery and swordsmanship. He even fought alongside Napoleon Bonaparte, who admired Dumas’ courage, but wasn’t as impressed with his temper. 😂 . And, of course, Dumas’ son went on to write one of my favorite novels, The Count of Monte Cristo. And his grandson wrote The Lady of the Camellias, the inspiration behind La Traviata and Moulin Rouge. . I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s been on my list for years now, so I had to buy it for this challenge. Get ready to hear more about him when I finish the book, because I have a feeling it’s going to be a favorite. . #TheBlackCount #GeneralAlexandreDumas

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General Dumas was born to an enslaved woman and a French nobleman enslaver in Saint-Dominique in 1772. After his mother’s enslaver and rapist freed him at age 14, he took his mother’s last name and joined the French army. He worked his way up the ranks from private to general and established a reputation as a brave and fierce fighter in the Napoleonic wars. His son, the great author Alexandre Dumas, based the titular character of The Count of Monte Cristo on his father.

You can read more about General Dumas in The Black Count.

5. Anna Murray Douglass

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Every year on fourth of you lie we get Frederick Douglass quotes & I get v annoyed b/c his ass was only free b/c of a Black woman he almost never writes about. Which is wild b/c my nigga wrote A LOT. Anna Murray-Douglass is his first wife who was born a free woman. She used her sewing gifts & funds to help him escape slavery which was risky AF. She then used her funds to get them started as a couple. She birthed 5 children & continued to run their household for 44 yrs. while Frederick traveled & grew popular in abolitionist circles. During this time he gained new friends (mostly white women) who critiqued Anna b/c they felt she was too uneducated to be his wife. He initially chose Anna b/c she reminded him of freedom & home. Sound familiar? Mkayyy. Balancing their money, the house as an Underground Railroad stop, raising their children & dealing w/ his disrespectful ass friends eventually threw Anna into depression. She died from a stroke. Two years later, Frederick remarried a white woman, Helen (a direct descendant of the Mayflower), & she gets way more airtime b/c he defends their love publicly. So on this day I’m here to clearly rant LOL & tell da damn truth. Anna Murray-Douglass was THAT DEAL! She was a bomb Black woman abolitionist who made it all possible. BUT AREN’T WE ALWAYS! Today her efforts will not be overshadowed by a Black man & a white woman. Thank you for coming to my Moesha journal! 🌹 #BWAFGU #AnnaMurrayDouglass

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Anna Murray Douglass was Frederick Douglass’s first wife. She was born a free woman and used her sewing gifts and funds to help her husband escape to freedom. Anna gave birth to five children and ran their family home (which was also a stop on the underground railroad) for 44 years while Douglas travelled around speaking on abolition. During this time she received a lot of criticism from his new friends because they thought she wasn’t educated enough to be his wife. Because it was so easy for a free Black woman to get an education (insert sarcastic tone).

You can read more about Anna Murray Douglas in Women in the World of Frederick Douglas and Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Murray Douglass.

This list is but a drop in the ocean of all the great Black people in history. I encourage you to do some research and find some more.

Don’t join the fight against racism to liberate me and other Black people. Join the fight to liberate yourself, because we are all victims of white supremacy.