To Truly Address Today's Racism, We Must First Face Our Past

Elizabeth Leiba
For me, learning Black history wasn’t just about discovering what happened in the past. It was about understanding my present reality and predicting my future.

Based on the stats, I shouldn't have even graduated high school, let alone attended college on a full scholarship, gone on to get an MBA and become a college professor. That shouldn't have been in my future at all.

My high school was 91% Black. 88% of the students were considered economically disadvantaged and 83% qualified for free lunch. I was in that 83%. I barely managed to score the 1000 on the SAT I needed to gain admission to the University of Florida. But my GPA was over 4.0 and I graduated fifth in a class of over 200. I attended UF on a full academic merit scholarship.

My teachers instilled in me the confidence that I could do anything. And I believed them. Regardless of the ragged, torn textbooks in our classrooms or the drug dealers on the corner outside the school, our teachers told us we were descendants of kings and queens. I believed that, too!

During my junior year of high school, I took an African American studies class. I read books that opened my mind and my spirit: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as told to Alex Haley, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, and “The Miseducation of the Negro” by Carter G. Woodson.
But two books in particular had the most impact on me: “The Isis Papers” by Frances Cress Welsing and “The African Origin of Civilization” by Cheikh Anta Diop. Those books changed my life.

Seeing pictures of ancient African civilizations as old as time itself helped me to reflect on myself for the very first time in a way I never had before. Who was I? Where was I really from? I asked myself those questions and realized I didn’t really know. I knew my address. But what was my ancestry?
Learning the truth about my history set me free from a narrative I had believed my entire life based on my surroundings: that life would always be harder for me and that I was destined to struggle.

Instead, I embraced the possibility that life encompassed more than I could see around me and that my legacy was greatness and hope, rather than hopelessness and pain.
The brilliant author and activist Maya Angelou expressed it best when she said, “I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.”

Studying and attempting to understand implicit bias, racial inequity, systemic racism, lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and the racial wealth gap in America is admirable. Attempting to fix these problems is even better. There is a reason I had to step over crack pipes on the sidewalk outside my high school, and it wasn’t because my parents were lazy or failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

There is a reason my school suffered from a lack of resources, overburdened teachers and not enough guidance counselors, and it wasn’t because none of those Black parents cared or didn’t want better for their children.

But, like Maya Angelou, I am a strong proponent in the idea that there is no way to understand why we are where we are, as a country, without having the historical context to put events and phenomena into perspective.
Why is racial profiling by police so common? Why is Black voter suppression an issue and how long has that been going on? Why is there a racial wealth gap?

Why are there still neighborhoods that are predominantly inhabited by Black people, with Black schools but no Black businesses? And what role does the practice of redlining, housing discrimination and loan discrimination, both for homes and businesses, play when we see this happening around us?
We can answer these questions by studying the history of America.