Smile Politely

C-U residents celebrate and create Black history

“Every Black person has something to be remembered by.”

These are the words of one of Champaign’s youngest and brightest Black History scholars and thinkers, Tesla Burack. This month, I had the privilege of sitting down with this fifth grader, along with a writer and a lawyer-reverend-activist, all of whom shared their personal connections with the importance, beauty, and frustration of how Black History Month is celebrated annually.

Tesla Burack is a fifth grader in Champaign. When asked about her favorite Black History Month traditions, Burack describes how her school has a long-standing tradition of fifth graders creating a wax museum for  National African American Parental Involvement Day (NAAPID), where the students research a Black person who made significant contributions to the world. Burack laments that Black History Month lessons typically feature Dr. Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. And while those two iconic Black heroes certainly made important contributions to securing civil rights in the United States, Burack wishes people understood that there are so many more Black heroes beyond King and Parks.

For her featured person, Burack chose James Baldwin. This wise-beyond-her-years learner, who loves dancing, reading, and creating, connected with Baldwin’s story because he helped Maya Angelou, another person who has positively influenced Burack. “I’ve watched some of Baldwin’s interviews on YouTube. He has such a great mind.” Burack would know a great mind when she sees it. She is passionate about expanding the Black history curriculum in school, setting her eyes on including an hour of Black history lessons as part of every school day.

Chike Coleman is a lifelong Champaign resident who has worked in the customer service field most of his adult life. Coleman is passionate about film and televison — he used to write about them for this magazine — seeking out movies and shows that tell stories that challenge the tropes popular media promotes. His recent work can be found at WeLive Entertainment and Coleman lives with cerebral palsy, and like Burack, he’s passionate about storytelling and listening to people’s individual, unique stories.

“Most of the Black History Month traditions are connected to what we learned in school,” he says. “Most of what I’ve learned about Black history is outside Black History month…through news about injustices done to African Americans, whether it’s police or people acting like the police; the injustice of going after African Americans who are accused of doing things they didn’t do.”

Coleman celebrates Black History Month by spotlighting Black stories, mostly through television and film. He shines a light on creators who were wise enough to be ahead of their time in telling hard stories. Coleman reflects on the early 90’s sitcom Roc, which tells the story of a Black man who works as a garbage collector to support his family in lower middle class Baltimore. “Anger was used as a tool to discuss hard topics of the day — like the war on drugs, gangs, and homosexuality,” Coleman explains, and he points to how the show unfortunately ran for only three seasons, then was replaced by more popular, longer-running shows that avoided difficult topics. 

When it comes to celebrating local Black history, there is one local woman whose work has changed the lives of not only Black students, but all students impacted by structural racism. “I’m a grandmother of a Rhodes Scholar. I’m from the backwoods of Mississippi, and my grandson got a Rhodes Scholarship. He’s going to Oxford!” exclaims Reverend Dr. Evelyn Underwood (pictured above). Underwood moved from rural Mississippi to Champaign when she was 10 years old, after growing up and working under a sharecropper with her family. “When I was three and four years old, I was carrying the water dipper to field hands. My sister, who was just four years older, had to take around the water jug.”

Underwood went from carrying the water dipper to field hands, to carrying the banner of justice for area students who were prohibited from going to school with their white peers.

Underwood is one of the Ellis Drive Six: Six African-American parents who fought for integrated schools in Urbana in the mid-sixties. “I tried to make sure my children could access education,” reflects Underwood, who became the first African American person elected to the Urbana school board. Though there was community backlash — three candidates challenged board members in 1966 in an attempt to reverse the integration progress — the Ellis Drive Six and the Black community of Urbana continued to advance their work in public schools. Underwood went on to travel across the country, as her husband served as a bishop and church leader in nine states for several decades. She became an ordained minister, graduated from law school, and earned a degree in education administration. She also earned a degree in counseling, and worked as a school counselor.

Underwood speaks to further discrimination that she and other Black people in Champaign-Urbana have had to overcome. For years, Urbana schools were reticent to hire teachers from Black schools. The University of Illinois was not an option for many local Black learners, so students often had to leave the area to complete their higher education. And even though K-12 schools were integrated, Black kids from the same family were often sent to different schools, adding stress and difficulty to Black mothers who had to work extra hard to support their kids, oversee their education, and support them when they experienced discrimination from their teachers and other school staff.

Her rough start in life filled her with an insatiable hunger for education. Not only has she accomplished so much in and around education, she ensured that her ten children, more than 50 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren have all had access to high-quality education and every opportunity it provides. “I had to overcome all that to show my children and grandchildren, that no matter the obstacles, you can do it,” says Underwood. She wants people to understand that, “If Evelyn can do it, I can do it.”

Coleman explains that his place in the community right now is to care for everyone and everything. “Everyone is unique and extraordinary. I enjoy being an outsider, rather than any one part of a specific community or subculture.”

Burack describes her place in the Black community and in Black history as a helper and a thinker, “If there’s something that needs more thinking on, that’s what I do.” This pre-teen wants to see a greater diversity of Black people represented in history lessons at school. Kids and adults of all races should be learning about ancient Black heroes, like Emotep, to modern Black heroes, like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist who has been central to developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

How can people connect with Black History, especially during February 2021? Burack and Coleman both encourage folks to take advantage of all the time we have at home right now. “Research more. Read books. Take some time to actually learn, since you’re stuck at home,” says Burack. Learners can also take online classes to learn about Black cultures from all over the world. Burack has connected with Black History by taking a virtual Black History class on Outschool.

Coleman recommends that people, “Celebrate individually with people you know will appreciate [Black history]. Celebrate the adaptations. Celebrate with people who see your adaptations and successes as an individual, who also happens to be African American.” Coleman suggests that the most profound thing readers can do is to read Rosa Lee’s story by University of Illinois journalism professor Leon Dash.

Most importantly, Coleman admonishes readers to, “Stay curious.”

Underwood connects with Black History Month through music by Black people, for Black people. She especially loves gospel music; she loves to find classics and new favorites on YouTube. Underwood and her husband produce shows that are broadcast on platforms like Facebook Live, and they have weekly phone conferences for Sunday School.

Underwood gives a solemn reminder as to why learning Black history, which has shaped our shared humanity, is so important. “Two weeks ago, [white supremacists] put hate mail in our subdivision. They put it in our yard,” she recounts. “When I hear about a shooting, I worry about my son and his safety.” She also described a recent 911 call she placed to ask for help, but the white operator treated her as a suspect. Underwood is committed to helping people learn how they can do better, and she later helped that 911 operator understand the consequences of his words. “If you don’t know, you don’t know,” explains Underwood. “We help each other. People can love each other.”

This Black History Month is different from those in the past. We’re more isolated because of the coronavirus and the extreme cold. At the same time, our country has entered into a new era of understanding and reconciling the racial injustices that are at the foundation of our country and Champaign-Urbana. If anything has changed, hopefully it is that we all better understand why it is so important to follow the lead of community members like Burack, Coleman, and Underwood in learning, creating, and impacting Black history. Every one of us, including white women like myself, have a duty to learn history with an open mind and a willingness to positively shape our future.

Top photo by Chad Burnett.

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