I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:
“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”
At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.
I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.
So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset
(April 27, 1884 – April 30, 1961)
Known as “the midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset was an acclaimed writer/editor who used her pen and others’—including Langston Hughes—to further the African American voice in public discourse. She was the only African American in her graduating class at Philadelphia High School for Girls. Years later, she was an editor for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine started by W.E.B. Dubois. The most published novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, she wrote four novels, each with a focus on black culture and the challenges that confronted it. William Stanley Braithwaite hailed her as “the potential Jane Austen of Negro Literature,” and Deborah E. Mcdowell saw her as a “black woman [who dared] to write—even timidly so—about women taking charge of their own lives and declaring themselves independent of social conventions.”
- Philadelphia High School for Girls, 1900
- Cornell University, B.A., 1909
- University of Penn, M.A., 1929
- Literary Editor of The Crisis 1919-1926
- Published four novels
- There Is Confusion (1924)
- Plum Bun (1929)
- The Chinaberry Tree (1931)
- Comedy: American Style (1933)
- Graduated as the only African American in her class from Philadelphia High School for Girls
- The first black woman accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, a highly selective academic honor society
“To be a colored man in America…and enjoy it, you must be greatly daring, greatly stolid, greatly humorous and greatly sensitive. And at all times a philosopher…” Fauset said.
Home page image © 2004 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Don Gensler. Photo by Jack Ramsdale