The Hidden History: Claudette Colvin

Grace – Year 12 Student

Editor’s note: This short essay was recently entered into the GSAL Black History Essay Writing Competition, organized by The GSAL Journal and UPSoc to coincide with Black History Month. Open to all students in Year 10-13, the purpose of the competition was to encourage students to undertake independent research, think critically and communicate clearly about an aspect of black history of interest to them. The Competition Poster provides more information about the competition brief and success criteria. CPD

I will be exploring one of the many hidden stories in black history. It may be surprising to some, that even the most prominent famous, important truths in the black civil rights movement, were plagued with systemic stereotypes, which even in the fight for freedom, black people had to conform to the same institutions that oppress them. However, to some this narrative is all too familiar, in a bid to minimise criticism that could hinder the fight to freedom, history had to change to cater to the palatability of the ‘white man’. 

One of the most paramount events in black history, yet the truth remained well hidden. The story of how a black woman refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, and no this was not Rosa Parks, it was a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, nine months before Parks.

When the NAACP were organizing the bus boycott, they elected Rosa Parks to be the face of this movement, instead of Claudette. Now this decision for those at the forefront of the civil rights movement was a conscience-stricken, yet critical one. There is a multitude of reasons for this; Misogynoir is presented as colourism, texturism and sexism. Misogynoir is, ‘misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias. Colourism; Rosa was of a lighter complexion than Claudette. Texurism, Claudette was perceived to have ‘bad hair’ (Claudette’s hair was coily and Rosa parks had looser curls). Sexism; Claudette’s character may well have been attacked for being a pregnant teenager in comparison to an older, educated Rosa Parks. These socially constructed prejudices are what motivated this decision. In a time of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and brutality against African Americans, the NAACP sought to avoid any negative attention brought to the face of the movement. Many members of the black community acknowledge this, including Claudette’s mother, “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her”.

Stereotyping of black people, runs deep into the American history and global society as we know it today, both consciously and unconsciously. This understanding of the ‘outsiders’ negative perception of black people, echoes through the black community. To this day, there are examples of negative representation in the media and stereotypes in society, clouding important issues such as police brutality, George Floyd namely one; there were allegations of him being intoxicated, as an excuse for his unjust murder. Stories such as the murder of Elijah Mclain, one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, highlight how he was a young, autistic man who played the violin for cats, in an effort to evoke sympathy. This is an example of a wider societal problem in the dehumanisation of black people, in which it is simply not enough to be an ordinary black person to be worthy of life. 

Yet, this critical analysis of the media is a mere portrayal of society and the systemic and institutionalised racism still haunting the black community to this day. The reasoning in which Claudette’s history was hidden, is being repeated now, which is why it is important to shine a light on such stories, in a bid to end the generational systemic, institutionalised racism, embedded in our society today. Grace

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misogynoir

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin#:~:text=Arrested%20at%20the%20age%20of,movement%20and%20retired%20nurse%20aide.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-43171799

https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin

https://time.com/5793559/the-bus-riders-100-women-of-the-year/

https://www.distractify.com/p/elijah-mcclain-body-cam

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