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Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make.”

-C.L.R. James, 1938, The Black Jacobins-


Black History Month articles are often devoted to distinguished people such as those who invented something that impacted millions of people; made a major contribution to civil rights; or became famous athletes, educators, film stars, entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians, authors, or musicians.  However, the above C.L.R. James quote reminds us that a more complete understanding of historical figures includes accounting for the circumstances that enabled them to excel.    

Consider, for example, Serena Jameka Williams who recently won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title thereby breaking her tie with Steffi Graf for the Open-era record and, in doing so, became ranked number 1 in the world for the 7th time.  In terms of factors that enabled her and her sister, Venus Ebony Starr Williams, to collectively dominate women’s tennis as well as acquire more than $200 million in wealth, recall that the Williams sisters were home-schooled by their parents.  Their parents also personally began their tennis training before they entered first grade and managed their careers during their formative years.  Both children unfailingly attribute their athletic success to their mother’s early introduction of Jehovah into their lives.  In sum, they came “Straight Outta Compton” and made history that their parents’ proactive involvements enabled.

Another illustration of enabling circumstances involves a University of Michigan sophomore, Amani Echols, who recently made history on her campus by winning the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award which normally is won by an upper class student.  The Spirit Award honors students who “…best exemplify the leadership and extraordinary vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Her journey to this point in her college career began with her parents providing her with a set of service-oriented and leadership values along with an enriched learning environment from early childhood onward. 

Being keenly aware of the opportunity her parents provided for her to enroll at a distinguished university of her choice, as a first-year student Amani committed herself to helping other youth by becoming Co-Founder of “WolveReaders” --a program that benefits public school children.  At the end of her first college year, she travelled to Indonesia to participate in a service learning project.  (Parenthetically, given that Indonesia has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, “Big Brother Trump” might not permit her to travel to Indonesia over the next four years.)  In short, Amani’s parents provided a powerful foundation; she understood well the importance of helping others; and, in an outstanding fashion, is playing the many campus leadership roles for which she was honored. 

On the other hand, many Black children’s circumstances are such that they are in need of “affirmative action” if they are to succeed.  By way of explanation, the distinguished Black attorney, Nathaniel S. Colley Sr., once said to me, “Suppose, from infancy, you bound my feet, prevented them from growing normally, and you never permitted me to walk adequately on a daily basis.  Then, when I start 7th grade, you say, ‘Nat, we’re sorry for your separate and unequal treatment. We’re going to start being fair.  We’re going to give you a chance to make the track team.  Tryouts for the sprints begin tomorrow!’ 

So there I am with malnourished, underdeveloped, aching feet; legs that have never experienced jogging much less sprinting; and the only shoes I have are my hand-me-down leather shoes with flapping soles.  I need some sort of ‘affirmative action,’ if I’m going to compete successfully against kids who have been privileged since birth, kids who have been to summer track camps, kids who have had nothing but the best running shoes and other benefits all of their lives.”

The above hypothetical situation constitutes the unfortunate reality when it comes to the adverse educational circumstances that prevent Black children from making history as distinguished lawyers, health professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, literary figures, scientists, etc.  As Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute noted, “The opportunity to learn - the necessary resources, the curriculum opportunities, the quality teachers - that affluent students have, is what determines what people can do in life."  Further clarifying what they term the “opportunity gap,” the Schott Foundation for Public Education indicated,  

  • “The opportunity gap is the disparity in access to quality schools and the resources needed for all children to be academically successful.
  • Students from historically disadvantaged families have just a 51 percent Opportunity to Learn when compared to White, non-Latino students, according to the Schott Foundation's Opportunity to Learn Index.
  • If every child is to have an opportunity for success, every student must have a true Opportunity to Learn.”  http://schottfoundation.org/issues/opportunity-gap/talking-points   

If we do not eliminate the “opportunity gap,” then all too many Black children will become part of the history we refer to as the “School to Prison Pipeline.”  Therefore, we should congratulate and come to the aid of those organizations that help close the “opportunity gap.” 

One distinguished Pittsburgh gap-closing initiative is Three Rivers Youth which was founded in 1880 as a Home for Colored Children, given that racism prevented its first resident, Nellie Grant, from enrolling in other orphanages.  Today, it is “…an independent not-for-profit child welfare agency advancing a mission of support, advocacy and success to benefit abused, neglected, troubled, homeless, and runaway youth. …Three Rivers Youth boasts client success rates that exceed national and regional benchmarks with school attendance at 97%, truancy abatement at 71%, and a 100% high school graduation rate that has held for the past 8 years. Over 70% of the children in care eventually return to their family of origin or a less restricted setting.”  http://www.threeriversyouth.org/about/

A lesser known significant program is Social Butterflies, a Charleston partnership between Simmons Pinckney Middle School and Morris Street Baptist Church.  Dr. Elise Davis-McFarland, along with several other Church members, provide programmatic activities to enhance the young girls’ perseverance, respect, responsibility, integrity, and excellence in all that they do.  The “Social Butterfly Affirmation” is as follows:      

I am a Beautiful Girl who is

Growing stronger every day

No one can make me feel so small


I am smart, sophisticated, and respectful.

I am not the same girl I was yesterday.

Each day I am Living My Life Like It’s Golden

To achieve the greatness that is in me.

Social Butterflies makes me better


I am here to live the good life

Never again will I doubt myself,

Make poor decisions or bad choices.

When I see you, you will be proud of the

Young lady that I have become.

I have learned that I am not my hair,

I am more than clothes, jewelry and money.

Like this world, I am priceless.

I will achieve every goal.


Given that there are so many forces that tear asunder Black children’s self-esteem as well as their physical beings, internalization of the above affirmation is of critical importance.  It is another way of understanding that “I am somebody” and, as such, I can become what I wish to be and, perhaps make history in the process.  

Similarly, teaching Black History is a tremendous form of affirmation because it helps young Black children [1] become keenly aware of who they were as a people before the cruel intervention of European colonialism in Africa; [2] understand and never forget what their people endured during the American Holocaust sometimes referenced as Slavery; [3] appreciate the resilient nature of the Civil Rights struggle that enabled Blacks to reach their current moment in history; [4] expand their knowledge of individuals who made extraordinary achievements, often against seemingly impossible odds; and [5] articulate ideas regarding how they can best “march on till victory is won.” 



Jack L. Daniel,

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor


February 1, 2017

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