When I was a freshman at Graceland University, I went to my very first play. It was a one-man play about the life and times of Paul Robeson. The story of this man left a remarkable impression on me that has lasted to this day.
I imagine, like me back then, many of you have no idea who Paul Robeson was.
He was a Black man that was awarded an academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915. He was a two-time All-American in football and the valedictorian of his graduating class—an unheard of accomplishment for a racialized man at the time. Robeson went on to earn his law degree from Columbia, play in the NFL and was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame. If that wasn’t enough, he also released over 276 songs, published poetry and performed in major films such as Othello, Show Boat, and The Proud Valley. He truly was a renaissance man.
The question is…why have we never heard of him?
On July 25th, 1946, four African Americans were hung. Robeson, who was now a noted celebrity, met with President Truman to demand legislation to end lynching. Robeson called on all Americans to ask Congress to pass civil rights legislation. He was marked as a member of the communist party for his political activism. The FBI cancelled his concerts. Death threats were made against him. He spoke out loudly and often against the United States and paid a heavy price for it. His passport was denied. His records were taken off of the Rutgers books. It was not until years later, after he died, that his achievements were recognized by the public. Today, there are streets and libraries named for him.
I share this story with you, as I could share 100s more, of forgotten leaders from the African diaspora who were erased or omitted from the history books. Black History month has the purpose of bringing forward the missing stories of my people and their contributions. Black History month isn’t about shaming or making others feel guilty.
As I’ve gotten older, I recognize that part of my responsibility as a leader is to find the stories to share with the youth so that they can have pride in the accomplishments of those who look like them in order to inspire them to achieve greatness also.
There are no three lessons today. There are no four tips today. Instead there’s a CHALLENGE:
Find a story. Find a list. Pick a racialized man or woman to learn about from the past whose story has been untold. Tweet about that or post it in your socials over the month. It could be as simple as a picture of the Major Harris, a professional cyclist who won numerous awards; Jack Johnson, who was the first Black Heavyweight champion of the world; or, Althea Gibson, the first Black female Wimbledon Champion. Pay tribute by learning about the forgotten racialized men and women that our history books have marginalized.
Let’s find the unwritten stories to be shared, and amplify the voices of the forgotten.