Celebrating Black HER-STORY

February 15, 2023 | Kimberlee Wyche Etheridge

tubman-wheatley-jemison-chisholm-parks-image-collage.jpgI grew up proud to know that I am the product of generations of planning, sacrifice and prayers, and that I represent the wildest dreams of my ancestors.  I look at the world from the shoulders of all of generations of women who walked this earth for centuries before me. Their stories, their trials and tribulations were not in the history books I was given in school. Instead, their words have been passed down from generation to generation through their stories—her stories.

The word "history" can be broken down into two parts: His and Story. History is said to be written often from the viewpoint of the powerful who control the pen, and the narrative. Stories are often scribed from the author’s viewpoint and crafted in a way to make the protagonists look good, sometimes at all costs. When we study history, it is important to read between the lines to get the full story and to learn what we may not be taught, or what we are sometimes taught misleadingly.   

With roots dating back to 1915, author and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, setting the foundation for Black History month. Nationally we look to February as a time dedicated to focusing on uplifting Black history and encouraging all to learn and celebrate the many important contributions made by African Americans that have shaped this country.

This year, 2023, I want to focus not just on Black history, but on Black Her-Story, highlighting five of the many impactful contributions made by African American women that have changed the course of America and sculped my life. Sadly, too many of us do not know their names. In most cases, they live in the margins of our history books, and if we take the time to learn we will see how Her Stories have truly shaped our collective History.  

Harriet Tubman (Born: 1882, Died: March 20, 1913). Enslaved from birth in Maryland, she escaped to freedom, but returned nearly 20 times to free family members and others.  She never gave up and she never lost a single person.  Harriet Tubman taught me to always reach back to bring others forward. Through mentorship programs, teaching medical students, and pipelining initiatives, the term, “play it forward” is a mantra that I live by.  

Phillis Wheatley (Born: May 8, 1753, Died: Dec. 5, 1784). Born in West Africa and enslaved at the age of eight, young Phillis was privileged to learn to read and write, accomplishing something for which many had lost their lives. Her intellect and passion for her studies, lead her to poetry and in 1773, she became one of the first African American women publish a poetry volume in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Phillis Wheatly taught me the power of words and what a coveted privilege it was then—and is now becoming again—to be free to pick up a book and read. Many science fiction books describe societies where knowledge is limited and controlled, hiding history and sometimes the truth of the present.  Studying Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, helped to teach me to read between the lines.

Mae Jemison (Born: October 17, 1956). Known by some as the first Black American woman astronaut, a physician, a leading scientist, and an advocate for girls' education in the United States, Mae Jemison joined NASA in 1987, and served aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Her story taught me that the sky is not the limit, and to never let anyone “put you in a box.” As a fellow medical doctor, my work in the creation of an annual Girls Powered by S.T.E.A.M. (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) event has changed the trajectory of many middle school girls of color who had never been shown their potential.    

Shirley Chisholm (Born: Nov 30, 1924, Died: Jan. 1, 2005). In 1972, she was the first Black woman to run to win the bid for presidential nomination in any major party.  An activist in her home state of New York, she was also the first Black woman to serve in Congress. Shirley Chisholm taught me that my voice counts, and if you do not like something, advocate to change it. I added a public health degree to my medical degree because I did not like the health outcomes I was seeing as a physician, and I had a responsibility to use my voice to change the health trajectory of others whose voices had been silenced by bias, prejudice and racism.

Rosa Parks (Born: Feb 4, 1913, Died: Oct. 24, 2005). Well trained and well prepared, in 1955, Rosa Parks did not get up. An activist during the Alabama civil rights movement in the 1930’s, she was involved in the planning of the famous bus boycott. Her planned actions started the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually desegregated that city's public transit. Ms. Parks taught me to hold firm.  Knowing she was going to get arrested; she did not waver in her determination to bring to light the injustices she had been working to end. The boycott did not end in a week or a month.  It lasted over a year. We have adopted a now or never mentality.  Change takes time and patience can be a true virtue. Sometimes you must keep your eyes on the prize to experience success.  We have not achieved health equity yet, and I know my job is not done. I do not know if it will take another year, or another decade, but believing in the outcome sets the path for success.  

Each day, additional women teach and inspire me. There is no job description of who one may learn from, no pedigree of worthiness to be a Her-story maker. Today is tomorrow’s history. I have no idea how my actions now may influence someone in the future. Celebrate the past, embrace the present and dream for those who will follow in your footsteps. Happy Black Her-Story month. Black history is American history. Make sure your read between the lines and check out what is hidden in the margins.  Not just for 28 days, but every day. Knowledge knows no calendar.