Kumi Rauf, founder of “I Love Being Black,” taking a photo of the wristbands on the arms of young folks at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
On this last day of Black History Month, my spirit is channeling the stories of Tubman, Parks, and King, as well as the tales of X, Garvey and Chisholm. And beyond that, heavy on my heart are the less popular tales: the grandparents who worked until their grand babies were in college, the mother who held down two jobs, just to come home and teach her children arithmetic, the formerly incarcerated brother who got out on appeal after applying information he received by reading a law book or two.
The lesser-known bearers of black history. The ones whose stories don’t appear in books. Their tales aren’t mammoth legends known around the world, but their individual stories combine to paint a thorough narrative of a people; my people.
There are microcosms of black history walking the streets of America. I see them in Oakland every day. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a vast amount of these people open up to me, and let me into their story.
I’ve been a published journalist for over a dozen years, and during this time, I’ve had a front-row seat to protests, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and everyday life. A front-row seat that I am privileged and honored to have, allowing me to produce stories and give the world a small taste of what I’ve seen.
It’s world history. American history. Oakland history. Black history... His story. Her story. My story. Our story.
As Black History Month concludes, I’m inspired by the late Sarah Tramble, who passed last February. Tramble, a longtime resident of West Oakland, lived to be 100 years old. And as she made her way through life’s journey, she created her own history books. I interviewed Tramble a few years ago, and got to witness her magic for myself. (My favorite line of hers was when she said that no one on Earth was like her, except for Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson.)
What I love most about Tramble’s take on history is that she didn’t go out seeking to tell the entire saga of human existence. She simply told the story from where she was seated. And in that, she told the story of the great migration, urban renewal, women’s rights, what it means to be African American, and so much more.
Every last piece of personal history is part of the bigger story taught in schools, shown in films and etched in our memories. Every individual tale is a piece of the fabric that quilts together to create the coat that is the story of humankind. This is true for all people.
But since the first ship landed here, the tales of individual African Americans have been disregarded. Over time, we’ve learned to praise "the greatest" or "the first," and overlook the rest. Jackie Robinson is a hero for what he accomplished, no doubt. But if you think Larry Doby wasn’t just as brave, you’re missing a major piece of the story. And then, if you’re from Oakland and you’ve never heard the tale of Jimmy Claxton, you’re not just missing a story — you’re missing a whole chapter.
My point being, you can’t possibly know black history from just hearing about “the first” or “the greatest”; black history is a collection of tales combined to create a narrative that is ultimately intertwined with American history, and world history.
Every single black person’s story is a type of black history worth chronicling and preserving. So take photos. Record conversations with your grandmothers. Write about the people on your block. If we don't do it, who will?
Inspired by Tramble, and the month in which we celebrate black history, it’s my honor to share with you 28 photos — one for each day of the month — taken from the seat I was given.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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