Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Sierra Phillips, A Picturing Black History Interview

Sierra Phillips

I’m Sierra Phillips, I’m a first year PhD student in the history department at The Ohio State University. I’m originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. And my research interests include Black history, specifically African American Women’s History and the civil rights movement. So I focus primarily on the 1960s. I think it’s important to study history, because in order for us to understand what’s happening right now, in the present, we have to have an understanding of what happened then because a lot of things that are happening now has foundations in decades earlier. When we think about the uprisings of 2020, people were shocked at what manifested across the nation that summer, but it’s important for people to realize that this has foundations, especially the 1960s because that was known as the long hot summer, when a lot of urban cities experienced uprisings because of similar reasons why they happened 60 years later, in 2020. I chose this story because this story is what initially ignited my passion and curiosity for the civil rights movement. I was exposed to the story of Emmett Till when I was about 10 years old, when my mom gifted me “The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till” was a documentary that came out in 2005. After hearing that story, I was just very intrigued with black history regarding the civil rights movement, but particularly why I chose to tell the aspect of Mamie Till, sometimes people overlook her contribution to the civil rights movement when it comes to this story. And I think it’s important to highlight because without her bravery and her courage, we wouldn’t even know about Emmett Till or what happened to him. So it was really important to highlight that particular aspect of his story. She had just lost her only son, we would expect her to just grieve and just focus on grieving her only child, the loss of her only child. But in the midst of that grieving, she still initiated the activism and the actions that we have to make sure we know the reality of white supremacy. The ministers are always at the front, and leading the movement, or that’s perhaps what we always see. It was important to have an ordinary person who wasn’t really involved in civil rights activity before her first son’s death. So, what I want people to take away from this article is that Black women have a unique role in the civil rights activity.

And it’s important to think about Black women, when you hear stories about civil rights movements, or like about Black peoples. I think of Ella Baker and her role, SNCC, and how she founded that movement, but also how she gave a lot of autonomy to the young activists and how she strayed away from traditional teaching, but she’s still taught white activists how to be activists and how to do it successfully. Without her contributions to SNCC, we wouldn’t see a lot of the student activists that we did in the 1960s. I think it’s important to realize that Black people have power and they do have agency in their stories. About the image, the sadness of Mamie Till, in the image you can she she’s beginning to like faint. She was just completely broken at the loss of her son, and she wouldn’t be able to fully come to grips with it and believe it until she saw her son’s body. And also how despite what she was going through, she still had people supporting her. And you could see that behind her that she wasn’t alone. If we just focus on, you know, the sad and the brutal, the brutal aspects of it, which is, you know, equally important, it could kind of drown out the actions and the agency of the Black people during that time that fought for his story to be heard and told. It doesn’t do the United States any justice, especially the education of Black communities to just cherry pick what events are told. An all-encompassing narrative of Black history is critical to understanding the legacies of Black people in the United States and beyond, specifically regarding my research interests in the 1960s.

If we do not tell the lesser known narratives or events, the people, the civil rights movement narrative is not complete. I celebrate Black History year round, so I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary that I do in February. Just continue to love and study and highlight and hold up Black stories and Black people like I do year round. When I was in third grade, I asked my teacher if we could do Black history reports, because I wasn’t learning about Black history enough and I went to a public school at that time, and he basically said the whole class couldn’t only me or a couple of people. I ended up writing a report on Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut, and we share the same birthday, October 17, so I was just very excited. Everyone should have the access and the resources at their disposal to educate themselves and know and learn about Black history, so that was one of the reasons why I really wanted to write for “Picturing Black History”, it’s important to broaden the access to Black History.