Our Past. My Future. Growing up Black in America.
by Made By Us and friends including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Saddle Up & Read, University of Illinois at Springfield’s Sangamon Experience and Center for Lincoln Studies, and The Conversationalist
Since Carter Woodson first planted the seeds that grew into Black History Month in 1926, the month of February unites us all in efforts to increase the visibility of Black culture and history. The year-round importance of celebrating Black life, telling a fuller history, and drawing attention to racial injustices takes on even more meaning this month.
One of the reasons we created My Wish For U.S. is because throughout history, some voices have been silenced, dismissed or existed only on the margins of society. And, though etched into our collective conscience, too many wishes have yet to be realized. By articulating how our ideals might come to life, we can inspire each other to take action.
Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian, believes in the transformative power of Black History Month and the service it provides to the American people. “[It] is as much about today as it is about the past. Experiencing Black History Month every year reminds us that history is not dead or distant from our lives.”
We know history serves us best when it is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. That’s why we’re bringing together museums and historic sites across the country through Made By Us to share more perspectives on the past and empower the next generation to shape the future.
As we look back, we must also look around. In honor of Black History Month, we asked several young Americans how their experience growing up Black in America has been shaped by history, both lived and learned. History is a collection of experiences remembered. By amplifying the voices of young Black Americans today, their words become a powerful record for future generations.
Submissions may have been edited for length.
Being black in America is, well, it’s a bit more complicated.
Justice Brown, 18, Alabama
What’s it like being black? Well, it’s beautiful. Just look at our tight curls and protective braids and laid edges. Look at our full lips and thick thighs and rich skin. Taste our food and hear our music and feel our excellence.
Black. Black is strength and unity and hope. Black is royalty.
Ahh, but being black in America is, well, it’s a bit more complicated. Our crowns were exchanged for chains and our palaces for fields. We were stripped of our names, our culture, our identity and sold. And today, we who built this nation — the 13 stripes permanently whipped into our backs — wear the surnames of our oppressors and make 87 cents to their dollar, but hey, at least our worth is more than ⅗ now. And when we protest, our hands must be up and our eyes diverted or we’re a threat. A criminal. A thug. Dead. So maybe instead of walking, we’ll try voting, but how can we be recognized when the delegates don’t look like us? When the mass incarcerations continue to disenfranchise us?
But don’t get me wrong, being black is still beautiful. Who else could lead peaceful revolutions to secure citizenship, voting rights, integration, and police reform while being beaten, ignored, and dehumanized?
Black. Black is strength and unity and hope. Black is royalty.
My goal is to gain ground toward true justice and economic empowerment for the black community, in the America that is also ours.
Copeland Johnson, 18, Birmingham, Alabama
I was born without knowing it, but soon learned that the black community, from the moment of my birth, had naturally selected me to be strong, survive, and carry it forward. I will. Growing up, it was clear to me that the black community, like any other, has positive values, beliefs and characteristics that are common to its population, along with many outliers to each of those things. Unlike the majority of other communities within America, we have rarely been afforded the full benefits of our citizenship, or even the mere benefit of the doubt.
The black community has long been the target of purposeful racism, discrimination, cruelty, and societal abuse, regardless of its beneficial contributions to America’s economy and its culture. Despite claims that such treatment no longer exists, I am a young man who has witnessed inequality firsthand.
Many choose to define the entire African-American community by its least productive and least successful citizens, while defining other communities by their most. Every community has its share of challenges. We will not accept being solely defined by ours. The duty of American citizenship, in all cases, should be to aid the least among us, protect the innocent, and celebrate the achievements of everyone in the nation.
The legacy gifted to me by notable figures in black history and everyday heroes within the black community is undeniable proof that we are due to be defined by achievement. We are workers. We are thinkers. We are teachers and students. We are first responders. We are jurists. We are inventors and entrepreneurs. We are doctors. We are soldiers and veterans. We are patriots, too.
Yet, one’s status as an accomplished, well-meaning, law-abiding black citizen will never matter to individuals and systems that hate the black community. Hate does not relent, even in the face of perfection. Thankfully, love always conquers, even in the face of imperfection. My upbringing as an African-American, Christian gentleman from Alabama has taught me that.
It was the unconditional love of God and my family that soothed away the disappointment when racist teachers or students stereotyped me, underestimated my capabilities, or attempted to deprive me of good grades or fair opportunities. I was able to thrive anyway.
Because I have faith and I am willing to work toward positive outcomes, hate does not intimidate me, discourage me from excellence, or cause me to fret. The remedy is to outnumber and overwhelm those negative individuals and systems with an abundance of those that absolutely love the black community! Our innovation, ingenuity, creativity and resilience are worthy of embrace.
The black community is due to transcend the limits set by the ignorance of others. My place within it is boundless. I am a scout in search of territory that will forever expand the borders of our acceptance, recognition, and potential. As an aspiring attorney, my goal is to gain ground toward true justice and economic empowerment for the black community, in the America that is also ours.
As I developed my passion for art, I came to look at my skin as sturdy armor, rather than a volatile weapon.
Julian Crosby, 20, Miami, Florida
I struggle in finding words to describe how I felt this summer amidst a global pandemic entwined with horrific, burgeoning racial unrest. To millions of Americans, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were an awakening, a call to action, a crusade for justice — but for Black men and women, those souls were another innocent reminder of the fragility and blatant disregard of our lives in America.
I attempted to distance myself from the collective trauma, but found it altogether far too daunting of a task because our pain was projected in every crevice of this country. No matter what I did, I could not seek refuge from the torment.
Art saved me, in a sense. When the sheer weight of our communal anguish as Black people attempted to devour my spirit whole, art reminded me of the enormous force within myself to proliferate my own peace. Writing, photography, music — those were the avenues that granted me tranquility when I thought such freedom was inconceivable. When I was typing on my computer, I felt in control. When I turned on the news or looked at my phone, I observed the opposite. I felt less than human — far more inanimate and void of life than a breathing soul with a capacity to feel. Newscasts oversaturated with Black trauma and strife made me feel constant danger — but not as if I was in danger, but rather was the danger. America had done so much to weaponize my Black skin, they made me feel as if I were a ticking bomb — a weapon of mass destruction more regulated and supervised than assault weapons themselves.
As I developed my passion for art, I came to look at my skin as sturdy armor, rather than a volatile weapon. Through art, I was able to embolden myself, and recognize that I wanted to give a sense of similar agency back to the Black community on my college campus.
Together, I worked with my friends in finding a way to physically manifest the reclamation of our power and voice. We chose to retrieve agency over our narrative as Black individuals in society by creating an art publication on campus, The Gravity Magazine. Through this magazine, we were able to assess our own force as creators and construct a future defined by the celebration of our melanin — kinky coils of hair and all. We choose to actively proliferate media exhibiting Black peace and happiness, because our world often feels void of such bliss.
Growing up Black in America is a reminder that I constantly interact with obstacles that have the power to tear me down, but I choose to rise instead. This society yields several mechanisms to turn my good days into bad, but they can never take my peace of mind.
Growing up black always felt like one of those feel-good movies; no matter what life threw my way.
Anya Dillard, 17, West Orange, New Jersey
Growing up black in America was a blessing and one of life’s greatest learning experiences because it gave me the strength to strive for greatness, and the confidence to be my authentic self.
I was born into a big Afro-Caribbean family of creatives, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs, and grew up in the diverse upper-middle-class suburb of West Orange, New Jersey. Growing up in a diverse area, I had grown up with every kind of person; no matter their color, gender, class, or creed, everyone was my friend and a member of my community. My family taught me to value my African-American and Guyanese heritage, to be worldly, and to lead in the legacy of my ancestors. I grew up being able to cook like a Jamaican, talk like a Brit, and dance like a New Yorker, and being black had everything to do with it.
To me, growing up black always felt like one of those feel-good movies; no matter what life threw my way, I always walked with my head held high, reminding myself that I had a crown up there to protect. Growing up black was pouring libations at Thanksgiving dinner, fighting my brother for the last piece of curry chicken, and my mother playing strictly black Christmas music from Thanksgiving all through New Years’. It was having cocoa butter and Adidas on at all times, living my life to Chance the Rapper’s discography, and doing the Electric Slide with 200 beautiful black strangers at Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing block parties. It was walking the streets of Saint Lucia in the summertime and feeling like I’d never left home. For me, growing up black was attending a public high school where the members of the gospel choirs and step teams were just as hyped-up as the athletes were. It was tapping into my creativity, rocking my wild curls unapologetically, and curving everyone that thought “You’re pretty for a black girl” was a compliment. It was running for student council president, winning, and becoming the 3rd black girl in my school to ever do it. Growing up Black was becoming a part of organizations like BLACK GIRLS ROCK, spending summers exploring HBCUs, co-organizing my town’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration, and speaking in front of 3,000 people at the largest civil rights demonstration in my town’s history.
I grew up being proud of my blackness, but growing up black taught me that our society had been trying to work against that pride for many years. Growing up black inspired me to become a revolutionary, because, to me, it meant waking up every single morning and realizing that I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.
Learning the history of my community, culture, and ancestors allowed me to see that with persistence and courage there can be change within this country.
Growing up Black in America has been an experience that has shaped me into the person I am today. Though there have been moments of injustice and consistent oppression, I have been able to find my voice and use it to push positivity and growth within my community.
Growing up with a single Black mother, we were forced to use what we had and avoid wanting what others had the ability to enjoy. I learned that nothing in life was given and, due to the color of my skin, there would be times of adversity. They would not break me but instead would make me stronger — building my integrity and character. Learning the history of my community, culture, and ancestors allowed me to see that with persistence and courage there can be change within this country to push the agenda and end the discrepancies that are a result of hate and racism. I understand the pressure placed on my generation to make strides toward the work the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and even John Lewis, completed in their lives. I look at the work done by those great people and it stood on the action of accountability and making sure to call out those who looked to dehumanize, disenfranchise and eliminate the culture that we take so much pride in on a daily basis.
Please understand that although the history of our culture holds a lot of pain, hurt and oppression, I stand tall in the pride that I am an educated black man. I am proud to wear my skin and carry the roots of my culture every day I live. I am not intimidated by the pressure one bit. In fact, I see it as an opportunity for me to give the next generation hope and help them to be proud of who they are as well. I hope that in the near future we can come together as one and make being Black in America easier for the generations to come. We deserve equality like all humans, but I would not trade my experience, culture and life for anything in the world. The challenges we face on a daily basis only make us stronger and allow us to love ourselves even more. I am proud to be a black man and that will never change.
As I got older, other people made it known I was indeed Black.
Caitlin Gooch, Wendell, North Carolina
I imagine when I was born, I didn’t know I was Black. I’m sure I didn’t know I was a baby either. I just existed. It seemed as I got older, other people made it known I was indeed Black. And not in a celebratory way. They talked about the essence of Blackness as if it were a negative thing. We are loud? I think any group of people would get loud to combat injustice. Or even for a family gathering. We have nappy hair? I’ve never seen more versatile hairstyles. An afro one day, straight hair the next day and box braids in the middle of the day lol. We have wide noses? A nose is a nose. In the past and even today, Black people have not been able to exist without being told who we are. But those people don’t really know us. I didn’t realize I was a minority in the horse industry until someone made a comment about it. “Black people don’t ride horses,” is the most common misconception. It’s funny because when people utter this, they don’t realize they’re talking to 1. An equestrian 2. Someone who grew up riding with hundreds of Black equestrians. We don’t live in the perception of who people think we are, we embrace the differences.
Even through all hardship, we still rise.
Ahja Howard, 22, Chicago, Illinois
Growing up in America as a black woman is hard. It’s like being the lowest of the low, but it does not fear me. I say this because being Black in America means power. Usually, people with all the power are feared. That is why they try to keep Black people down in America. However, we are unbreakable. I grew up in low-income housing on the West Side of Chicago, and I have accomplished so much in my young life. As a first-generation student, who will be graduating this upcoming May, I have been on executive boards for multiple organizations, mentored young students in the Springfield and on-campus communities, and became a member of the best sorority — Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Every time Black History Month comes around, I am always proud and reminded that Black is Beautiful. Even through all hardship, we still rise.
We try so hard to say that, “color doesn’t matter,” but the actions of our society shows that it does.
R’Lee T. Jones, 21, Springfield, Illinois
I grew up in a family where our melanin ranges, so color doesn’t matter to me. It wasn’t until I sat in my 1st-grade class for show-and-tell, excitedly explaining the details of my trip to my Mom’s hometown that I realized I was different. I mentioned that my grandmother’s color was close to my teacher and that I, too, must be white. My teacher let me know immediately that wasn’t the case. She called my mother later that day and she was livid. It’s like we try so hard to say that, “color doesn’t matter,” but the actions of our government, society and social media shows that it does.
Being Black in America means that I have to work twice as hard and be twice as better to get the same results as my white counterparts and that’s exhausting. It’s exhausting trying to prove that I’ve got the same amount of, if more, talent as the white person next to me with the same degree from the same college. But I wouldn’t trade being African American for anything in the world. Everything about me is unique. From my hair to my hips, from my high cheekbones to my two-toned lips. There’s only a select of us made by God to be His beautiful Black angels and as much as it’s a fight for me to have basic human rights, I wouldn’t want to be anything else.
It means using our past as fuel to drive us to the future.
Samaryia Magee, 27, Springfield, Illinois
To be Black in America today means so much. To be Black in America means you have to prove yourself in everything you do. It means being judged simply because of the way you look. It means being resilient. It means breaking barriers and making history. It means being proud! Being Black in America is no easy task. It means rising above. It means using our past as fuel to drive us to the future.
It means continuing to show up and contradicting the well-known (and inaccurate) stereotypes of how the world views Black people. It means being selfless and helping those where you come from. It means to give back to your community in any way you can. This can be giving donations to your local homeless shelter or giving time by volunteering at your local youth center. Being Black means setting an example for those generations after you. It means being a role model that young Black people can relate to or aspire to be. Being Black means you have a responsibility to motivate the youth. Be a mentor! Being a mentor can truly make a difference in a young person’s life. While talking to the youth, instill in them that they are great! Let them know that they matter! Uplift them so they know that anything is possible. Being Black means continuing to use our voices for change.
Growing up I remember hearing stories about famous Black pioneers. I became so grateful for those that came before me. I was able to see an image of myself reflected. While being in summer camp and after school programs, I was able to see college graduates that looked like me! They assured me that there was a place for in college and in the world!
Working with first-generation college students, I am able to help students on their journey through college. It makes me extremely proud to see more Black students pursuing a higher education and graduating-some with multiple degrees! Being Black means being proud and keeping your head up despite any obstacles. I am Black and proud. I will continue to set examples and embody being a role model and being a positive Black voice.
“Every day is a good day.” These words were not a promise, but an affirmation.
Noah Ogunmakin, 17, Birmingham, Alabama
To be black in America is to be a soldier, born into a war that at most times feels impossible to fight. It is to be royalty treated as peasants. It is to have a head filled with empty promises and hopeful visions of the uncertain. To be black is to listen to Whitney Houston exclaim that “The children are our future” but never know if you’ll be taught well or have the opportunity to lead the way. Every day, as a child, my mother, sister, and I would say to each other a motto; “Every day is a good day”. These words, no matter how many times they had been recited, held a tremendous amount of power. They were not a promise, but an affirmation. By proclaiming to ourselves that no matter what happened during our days the outcomes were sure to be satisfactory, we stepped out into the world with no worries or fears whatsoever.
My parents were always honest. My sister and I never believed in Santa Clause, The Easter Bunny, or any other mythical creatures our friends tried to tell us about. Our parents told us that they didn’t lie to us because they didn’t want us to lie to them, and they knew the world would never care about our feelings, and would eventually tell us anyways. They did however tell us one thing that they weren’t certain of. The words “You can do any and everything you set your mind to”. Being a young black man, all I’ve ever wanted to be in this country is respected. Sadly, my wanting to be respected, does not ensure that I will be. It did not stop a man from calling me the n-word and trying to hit me with a car at the age of 14 and it will not stop someone from doing it again.
Being black in America is to learn at young ages to love those who hate your very existence. It is to understand that throwing the hate thrown upon you to others only results in more pain. It is understanding that both sides of the war think they’re doing the right thing and that your heroes are someone else’s villains. Unfortunately for us, our heroes never really get to see the change they make. Our people are brutally murdered by the same people who take oaths to protect us. We watch as dozens of our loved ones are made martyrs every year, praying for change. We hold visuals to honor our fallen soldiers annually where we laugh, we sing, we pray, and we comfort each other, hoping we can join them again, and praying we have the opportunity to transition peacefully.
We Americans, are living in a war zone where our tragedies are not only Televised but turned into sick jokes in the name of dark humor. To counteract all the negative words we hear daily, I’d like to leave you with these positive ones that my life has led me to live by. “Never let the evil of other people diminish your kindness” and “Always remember that one day, your rock bottom will be nothing but a mere memory, to look back on and laugh.”
Community & family are the tenets that rise to the top for me and allow me to have critical hope.
Justin Rose, 31, Springfield, Illinois
Growing up Black in America has many different meanings for me. When I look at it on the macro-scale of society, I see my experience of being Black in America the same way as the great James Baldwin, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Understanding that no matter how credentialed I become. No matter how I show myself to be a law-abiding (taxpaying) citizen who is helping the communities and systems I have membership in. Or, no matter how many times I participate in democracy to change laws that disadvantage groups who share a similar underrepresented status as myself — I still come away experiencing an America that practices overt and covert nefarious racism. An America where those with more power and authority set the rules to live.
But then, when I take a step back and think about being Black in America, I think about a fundamental part of why I love being Black — and that comes on a micro-scale. My environment matters to me. It reminds me to stay humble. To stay aware of what I still need to do. And lastly, it always reminds me to remember whom I am representing (and to be proud of it)! Coming from the West Side of Chicago, and the family I come from allows me to appreciate my Blackness first, then the various aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion in a far richer way than what we could ever intellectualize.
My community and family allowed me to see my Black identity as a form of creative thought. They allowed me to see how my Blackness has always been rooted in going the extra effort. How my Blackness is tender and kind — because we are people who make sure people had things, or that at least our people felt included. More than that, though, it taught me to love people and not things. Growing up, we didn’t have many things to begin with in the first place. Still, my family and community taught me that everyone has value, regardless of what any media source, officer, government official, or outsider wants to think. So when it comes to an understanding of what it is to be Black in America, community & family are the tenets that rise to the top for me and allow me to have critical hope. It allows me to become intentional about loving and supporting those who have potential and who may need a handout/hand up, rather than cutting them down. It allows me to reflect on the principles of love over hate.
Yes, my Blackness in America is complicated. It is always met with some level of adversity. But being Black in American will never stop me from chasing my dreams, nor will it stop me from reaching back to bring others along with me on the road to GREATNESS. At the end of the day, if I wasn’t Black in America, I don’t know if I would want to be here doing life any other way!
I play a part in both white and black worlds.
Josh L. Rowzee, 20, Springfield, Illinois
I grew up differently from my other Black brothers and sisters. I was raised by a single white mother until 8th grade. I never knew how much my skin color mattered until I moved in with a Black family. Before, I only had to worry about making it to school on time. Then, I had to worry about staying alive. At first, I lived in an area where I was one of the only Black boys. Suddenly I moved to an area where there were more Black people than white people. I remember hearing fireworks — they turned out to be gunshots. I remember dropping and rolling at my cousin’s house because bullets were flying through her house. But I always managed to keep a smile on my face. I never let the downfalls that were happening around me tear me down; I knew that something needed to be done.
Growing Up in Black America, you do not get the same opportunities when it comes to scholarships or jobs. I want to check both boxes for racial ethnicity because I play a part in both white and black worlds. Growing up, I was either too white or too black. It was never in between. I was the lightest on my father’s side and I felt like I did not belong. I was the darkest on my mother’s side and I felt like I did not belong. Feeling like an outcast in your own family is not something any child should have to face.
I never thought I would have to protest for Black men and women getting killed by the police until I saw a boy who looked just like me getting killed for just walking down the street in a black hoodie. We need to stop the hate, judgment, and stereotyping toward Black children and adults. We all bleed the same color blood. We need to come together as one and UNITE because I do NOT want future generations to feel the way I did.
I am a hard worker who will continue to fight for my people, continue to fight for representation in all aspects and dedicated to service.
Jayla Stubblefield, 21, O’Fallon, Illinois
I grew up middle class in a two-parent household, as a military kid (both parents served 20 years in the Air Force) in a suburb of Saint Louis (O’Fallon, IL). I grew up great, but it was also very hard for me to fit in. I was in honors classes since Kindergarten. I knew I was destined for greatness, but something was off. Why did nobody in my honors courses look like me? As I got older I was challenged with being too black for the white kids, but not black enough for the black kids. “You talk white” was all I heard in middle school. I always thought that being educated was a good thing, so why did I feel so bad for it? I remember at times wishing I was lighter-skinned or white just so my problems of not fitting in would go away. After all, being the token black girl is tiring. The constant code switching, looks I got in history class when we talked about black history, the confusion when I told people I was from a nice town like O’Fallon. Tired. I was tired. I knew when I was very young, that when I went to college I would be different, rebranding myself if you will. I was so busy hiding behind a mask most of my life, not being 100% myself because I was judged for it.
Fast forward to high school, I continued to be in honors courses, taking dual credits, and excelling in sports and academics. I felt as if I had something to prove, as I need to validate why I deserved to be in honors courses. It wasn’t until my senior year when I was applying to colleges that I found my true self. I love to serve the community, I love excelling, but for myself not to prove a point, I love breaking the glass ceiling and setting higher and higher goals and reaching them. That would be my legacy when I went to college.
Now, fast forward to my senior year in college. I am graduating a WHOLE year early. Not a semester early, but a year. I have a job lined up. I am a member of the best sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. I am a tri-chair on the Social action and Anti-racism task force. All while maintaining a 3.7 GPA. Though growing up was hard, it shaped me into who I am today. I am a hard worker who will continue to fight for my people, continue to fight for representation in all aspects and dedicated to service. I use each day to learn about my history and educate others. That is the legacy I wanted to leave, and I believe I am on the right path to do so. My ultimate goal is to mentor children from less fortunate communities and show them STEM because their schools lack the resources that others have.
To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. History has been unevenly written and unevenly shared, but it is our aim to do better, to make the tent bigger, to understand a more multifaceted perspective. We use our Made By Us Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.