17 June 2020

10 inspirational black women I want my daughter to know about

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about ten inspirational women I wanted to teach my daughter about. That was just ten, and there are so many more courageous and inspiring women I would like to talk about. 

This time I wanted to talk about black women specifically. As the Black Lives Matter movement is growing, it is more and more important to have those discussions with our kids where we acknowledge racism and introduce diversity. This post has been long in my drafts but as I have been learning more about systemic racism, it has become increasingly clear to me that I should ensure our homeschooling acknowledges heroes of a diverse nature, not just what my Eurocentric education has me automatically turn to.

I have to admit, I did ponder for a while if I should be writing this post. Who am I to be choosing black heroes? But I decided it doesn't really matter. They are inspirational women who should be shouted about from the rooftops, regardless who is the one sharing the message.

So here are ten fantastic historically impactful black women, some of whom you might not have heard of, but ought to.  These women made their mark in history, against the odds. It was not just their gender that was holding them back at the time, but also the colour of their skin. Despite the difficulties they stood their ground and persisted, tenacious, graceful, just and courageous. And it is a shame that all too often their contribution is forgotten, in preference to their better-known white contemporaries.





1. Rosa Parks. OK, I know, I know, everyone knows about Rosa Parks. She was the woman who was too tired to get up and refused to give her seat to a white man, getting her arrested, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott which led to nation-wide protests against racial segregation in public facilities in the United States. 

She was tired, and didn't want to get up for a white man. That's the way we are often taught the story but this downplays the significance of her moment. For Rosa Parks was not tired. She was a fit, 40 year old woman. She herself says in her autobiography that "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically ... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in".

Here is a good video on Rosa Parks suitable for primary school students. 

2. The person you probably don't know about however is Claudette Colvin. Claudette was the teenager who inspired Rosa Parks to stay seated. 

Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat, there was Claudette Colvin. She was 15. Her dream was to be the president of the United States. When the bus driver told her to get up for a white woman, she refused. She was thinking of a school paper she wrote about blacks not being allowed to use dressing rooms in the department stores, being unable to try clothes before buying them, and she decided to stay seated.

She said later: "History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojouner Truth pushing down on the other". As she was dragged from the bus by police she shouted her constitutional rights were being violated. She never became the poster child for the civil rights movement however, as she was a teenager, unmarried and got pregnant a few months after her arrest, and was not considered to be of the right image.

For kids a good learning point might be that Rosa Parks did not exist in a vacuum - lots of people were standing up for their rights and Rosa Parks was just one part of a wider movement. For older children an interesting learning point might also be that history we know is never the full picture and history is a collection of stories, sometimes curated to tell a certain viewpoint. 


3. Harriet Tubman was born a slave in the 1820s. She was often beaten and when she was thirteen a slave owner threw a metal weight at one of his slaves, and the weight hit Harriet. It fractured her skull and caused her life-long headache and dizzy spells. She escaped in 1849, and after a long and dangerous journey using the Underground Railway (a route of safe houses escaped slaves used to hide when on the run), she reached Pennsylvania.

After a law was passed in the US that made it legal to capture escaped slaves from other states and return them to their owners, Harriet wanted to help slaves reach Canada, and started helping them along the Underground Railway. She led 19 escapes from the south and helped around 300 slaves to escape. She never lost a slave and was never caught. She became famous in the underground movement and was called Moses, as she led her people to safety just like Moses in the Bible.

Here is a good video on Harriet Tubman, suitable for primary school kids. 

4. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "the Godmother of Rock'n'Roll", was an American singer, guitarist and a songwriter who was particularly popular from her gospel recordings in the 1930s and 1940s. She pioneered electric guitar techniques, and influenced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and later also Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Meat Loaf, Katherine Carpenter and many other diverse artists have also cited her as an influence.

At this time female guitarists were very rare, and playing guitar was often linked with masculinity and she was often told she "played like a man". At the time segregation was also rife, so she had to sleep on the tour bus and come in to venues through the backdoor as black people were not admitted. She has also been referred to as a lesbian artist. After her second marriage ended, she toured with Marie Knight, who many speculated to be her partner, although they dismissed this as rumours.




5. Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a pilot. She was born in the 1890s and she was one of 13 kids. The family was very poor and she had to work from an early age. When she was older she became interested in flying and applied to flying school, but was rejected because she was black. Determined to learn to fly, she moved to France and attended flying school in Paris, and got her pilots licence in 1921 - becoming the first black woman in the world to qualify as a pilot. She returned to US and performed in air shows doing many daring and dangerous stunts - including jumping out of her cockpit and walking on the wing, while the aeroplane was in the air. She tragically died when she was 34 year old of a flight accident. 

6. Josephine Parker - a world-renowned performer, a World War II spy and a civil rights activist. Some referred to her as the Beyonce of her time. She hailed from a poor family. Her grandparents were former slaves, and she never knew her biological father. For a while she lived on the streets as a child and performed on the streets. She was tenacious and got parts in vaudeville theatre but was mostly a background dancer. Eventually she moved to France in 1920s, where she became a huge success in dancing and entertaining.

During the second World War Josephine became a French Resistance agent. As a successful entertainer she got access to parties at embassies and ministries, charmed officials and reported back what she heard from high-ranking Japanese and Italian officials. After the war she was awarded metals of honour for her contributions.

She was an outspoken campaigner against the racial segregation in the US, and refused to perform to segregated audiences. In fact, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, she was approached to take on the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement but she declined it saying her children "were too young to lose their mother". She had twelve adopted kids, from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, and she referred to her family as "The Rainbow Tribe" and used them as an example of an anti-racist community. 

7. Katherine Johnson was a mathematician whose work was critical to the success of NASA's first space missions. She loved maths from an early age, and wanted to count everything. She began to work at a data entry person, a usual lower-skilled position for women in the 1950s, but she soon proved herself in the aeronautics and space program.

She was assertive, and started to attend meetings and to insist being heard, and as she was so good at mathematics, she started to work on different space programs and over time became very influential and well-known scientist. When NASA first moved on to using computers only for calculating spaceship trajectories, some astronauts refused to fly before she had verified the computer calculations herself. Her story is also covered in the acclaimed film Hidden Figures - very much recommended!






8. Mary Seacole was a nurse in the Crimean War. She was from Jamaica, and her father was a Scottish soldier and mother a Jamaican nurse and a healer. Mary had an interest in medicine and nursing from an early age, and she loved traveling too and was business minded.

After traveling and working in many countries in the world she had heard of the bloody battles and wanted to help - so she went to the War Office in London and requested to join Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses in the Crimea. She was turned down, but determined Mary would not be swayed, and with her friend she set sail to Crimea in 1886 with a boat stocked with medical supplies. She set up the "British Hotel" near the front-line, where soldiers could rest and buy food and drinks. With that money, she treated sick and wounded soldiers. She was also incredibly brave and used to ride horseback to the frontline, even under fire, to treat wounded soldiers of both sides.

Here is a good video series on Mary Seacole, suitable for primary school students. 

9. Maya Angelou was a world-renowned poet. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, many poetry books and contributed to many television shows, plays and movies. She had also worked as a journalist, and actor and a lecturer.

When she was eight years old she was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend. After she told her family about it, the man was murdered - probably by her uncles - and Maya stopped speaking for five years. She believed that it was her voice that killed him, and that her voice could kill someone else too, so she stopped speaking completely.

For kids a good learning point in my opinion would be that even if something bad happens to you, you can overcome it with time. Over time Maya Angelou was able to have a voice again and her voice became very influential and heard by many.


10. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a political and environmental activist and lived in Kenya, and she fought for democracy, human rights and conservation of the environment. She set up the Green Belt Movement in 1970s, an environmental organisation, that encouraged and funded planting trees across Kenya to combat deforestation and to improve women's lives. Even after the former repressive government  of Kenya started to harass and ultimately arrested and beat her, she continued her work.  

Some fantastic and interesting women from history, who have contributed so much to the betterment of humankind - and they are fantastic for any child to learn about. 

Who would you include in this list in addition to the above? 





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