Piece 38: We Don’t Say Their Names Enough

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

When one of my favorite podcasts, Code Switch, introduced me to Storme DeLarverie via The Nod last summer, I was astounded that I’d never heard her name before. A self-appointed protector of the LGBTQ community in her New York neighborhood, she was present before, during, and after the Stonewall Uprising. And yet, as posited in this episode, we don’t say her name enough.

Neither do we say often enough the name of Fannie Lou Hamer. Even though she was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t grow up learning about Hamer in the same way I did Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks. This may be because her life and activism weren’t interwoven with elaborate, beautiful biblical allusions and stunning rhetoric, she didn’t possess an inspiring account of teaching herself to read while she was in jail, and she didn’t carry out a single, decisive act of passive resistance to launch a boycott that would desegregate Montgomery buses.

Although my school textbooks overlooked her contributions, Hamer’s activism was nonetheless integral to the Civil Rights Movement’s aim to make voting accessible and safe to Black Americans.

In 1964, Hamer famously testified before the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee. In her stirring testimony, Hamer relayed her experience of having been beaten in prison, of having been ordered off the plantation where her family lived and worked as sharecroppers because her husband’s employer learned she had registered to vote, and when he confronted her, she refused to withdraw her application. Hamer’s unshakeable commitment, consistent hard work, and contagious determination provided fuel to the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.

The name of Marie van Brittan Brown is as new to me as that of DeLarverie and Hamer. In the late 1960s, Brown noted a sharp jump in crime in her neighborhood and slow police response time. She therefore worked with her husband to conceive a device that would use a combination of four peepholes, a video camera, and a television monitor to allow people to interrogate visitors to their homes and, if need be, alert police via radio. When I close my eyes to try and picture what this contraption might have looked like in Brown’s Queens neighborhood, what I imagine looks very little like today’s doorbell cameras, and yet the two systems are definitely branches on the same home security system tree. Why, I wonder, didn’t Brown’s name didn’t show up on lists of Black inventors when I was in school? Although I got to learn the names of inventors like Garrett  Morgan, George Washington Carver, and Madam C. J. Walker, Brown’s name never floated across my radar. 

I ruminate too, on Rosie the Riveter. As a teen and young adult, I frequently glimpsed her iconic visage at certain times of year, proclaiming that she can do it and encouraging all of womankind to believe in their own abilities as well. Why, then, was I a whole 38 years old before I learned of the existence of Black Rosies? Far from being peripheral anomalies, Black Rosies were among the 600,000 Black women who entered paid service following Executive Order 8802, which FDR signed in order to steer A. Phillip Randolph away from carrying out the first March on Washington in support of Black workers’ rights. How, in all our culture’s popular representations of Rosies’ contributions to the war effort by taking over men’s jobs back home, have Black women escaped recognition?

As you listen to this week’s recommended resources – the podcast episode about Storme DeLarverie and the articles about Black women who’ve contributed so much to shape the world we live in – I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Why have names like DeLarverie, Brown, and Hamer, as well as the contributions of Black Rosies been left out of the narratives we’ve been served about Civil Rights leaders, gay rights activitsts, and Black inventors, especially those in STEM?
  • Why does our cultural collective consciousness marginalize leaders who themselves already exist in the margins of our society? Is it because if they don’t fit into our trite and tidy box of respectability and relatability, we don’t want to listen to the wisdom their voices offer? 
  • How many more historical figures might we be missing out on learning from because they’ve been sidelined by our history books?

We can do better. We can seek and learn and grow. We can relentlessly pursue knowledge, and amplify the lives, work, and voices of people who’ve earned their way out of anonymity and into the center of our collective cultural history rather than its margins. Perhaps the more we affirm and amplify the voices of people who’ve endeavored to pave the way before, the less we will have occasion to clutch our collective pearls when the people whom we’ve chosen time and again to ignore and then condemn, creatively display the trauma we’ve inflicted on them as a way of defining and liberating themselves.

If we don’t say their names enough, they will call themselves by their names while we look on in ignorance and confusion.

Let’s keep working, learning, and growing – through every hard, awkward, difficult conversation. Peace isn’t a passive state of mind that will settle over us like a heavy fog if only we sit still long enough. If we want peace, we will have to pursue it, one piece at a time.