A Closer Look: Embracing our history to better understand our present and impact our future
On August 2, 2020, She Votes Illinois attended a press conference held by Rep. LaShawn Ford in Evanston, Illinois. The Press Conference was focused on how we teach history to our students in Illinois. Rep. Ford has introduced HB 4954, which would require that schools in Illinois teach Black History, starting with pre-enslavement history. History, as it is taught now, reinforces white supremacy and almost always erases the history of Black people. All of our students deserve better. This is why She Votes Illinois strongly supports the passage of HB 4954.
Our board member, Quandra Speights, spoke on behalf of She Votes Illinois at the press conference. Her words are powerful and we are sharing them here (or watch the video here) for those who could not attend the press conference.
Good afternoon and I am thankful for this opportunity to speak today about why we should support the instruction of black history in our schools.
My name is Quandra Speights an active board member of She Votes Illinois. She Votes IL is an organization whose primary objectives are to highlight the importance of women’s voices in elections, government, and policy making. I’m tremendously excited about my continued involvement with this impressive group of women working to influence the political process and policies so that our lives in our state are impacted in a positive way. She Votes IL supports HB 4954 because we believe students should learn about the many contributions Black people as a whole and Black Americans in particular has had on this society and not providing this education is a disservice to all students. It seems very surreal to stand here today to explain why we should require our children to learn about Black History. Maybe because I see black history more so as American history and it is imperative that we embraced all our history and not just a one-sided Eurocentric point of view or the white man’s perspective.
Studying history allows us to understand our past, which in turn allows us to understand our present and influences our future. It provides us with an insight into our cultures of origin as well as sub-cultures created by people, experiences and behaviors, thereby increasing cross-cultural awareness and understanding. IS THERE A BETTER TIME THAN this to support the implementation of black history as a priority in our state education system?
The Black history taught in our school system often is an abbreviated version of our history beginning with fragments of slavery and the Civil Rights movement and ending with the election of President Obama. We CAN and SIMPLY Must do better than that. This Bill, HB4954 is sponsored by many of our State Legislators, including LaShawn Ford who is here with us today. This Bill promises to expand the current curriculum of Black history to include the study of American Civil Rights and the study of pre-enslavement history. BUT let us also dare to teach the history of significant and not often spoken about black women figures in our history such as:
Maria W. Stewart
a pioneer black abolitionist and women’s rights advocate in the 1800s who initiated a black women’s demands for sexual justice campaign by asking, “What if I am a woman?”
It was a question with profound implications if answered in the affirmative. What would it mean to acknowledge women, especially black women, as full citizens with legal capacity and political consent? By asking that single question, Stewart asserted the essential humanity of black womanhood and called for the inclusion of black women as fully human beings and the “owners” of their own bodies with the ability to withhold consent. You may be wondering why is this important? Mainly, because in the 1800s, In most states, black women — free and enslaved — were excluded from rape laws. In fact, Southern states made it legally impossible for slave women to file rape charges against a white man before 1861. Her advocacy made many inroads on this important issue.
Who questioned the government on why they would deprive thousands of black widows without a pension.
Over 100,000 African-American men served in the US Army where the majority of whom had been from the South and were once enslaved. Many of those men were married during slavery or had common law marriages. During the 1800s, pension law only recognized legal marriages and ignored slavery marriages leaving all these black widows without pension benefits. Lucy was a pioneer in the fight for equity for women and families on this issue.
A free black woman accused of assisting a slave to run away from his owner.
Her story is historically significant because she went to court to argue that she was a “free woman” and not a “free negro” or “free negress.” The final document shows that Richardson was successful in her plea and was released on the information that “her mother was a white woman.” She knew that if the court would believe her mother were white, she might gain the sympathy of the all-white, male court, regardless of whether or not she had actually committed the supposed crime. Richardson used her knowledge of existing race and gender relations in order to make her case. Her ability to use the established laws at the time served as an inspiration for many other freed slaves.
These are just a few examples of how Black Women have impacted America History. If the full story of Black history is taught in our schools, we will see many other students of all races be inspired by our rich Black history and stories just like I was. So please join me in support of these Representatives and this Bill… support House Bill 4954 and let’s make sure we don’t miss this moment.
If you live in Illinois, we urge you to contact your state representative and state senator and express your support of HB 4954. We expect that this bill will be a focus of the Fall 2020 Veto Session, and your voice can help the initiative gather support and momentum.
If you do not live in Illinois, share this with your friends in the state and reach out to your own state’s legislators and ask that they also support teaching more inclusive and complete history in your state’s schools.
By Robin Dusek, Policy Chair, Board member, She Votes Illinois. Speech written by Quandra Speights, Board member, She Votes Illinois