By Jennica Clerveaux | May 22, 2023
Mouth wide open. That describes my reaction upon learning one day in the eighth grade – indeed, in an African American studies honors class comprised only of students of color – that chattel slavery in the U.S. began with British descendants bringing human beings to the West from Africa. You better believe I mustered up the courage to ask my teacher for clarification.
It wasn’t that slavery happened that caused my confusion. I just had never known such hatred could travel that far. Why didn’t my middle school, in Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County, make sure this was an integral component of understanding U.S. history? A few months after that class, my teacher quit his job, and for the rest of the year we had a substitute who only served as an attendance monitor. So we never revisited that bomb dropped on me.
Before that point, my dad had alluded to the mistreatment Black people faced, but I never knew it was that bad. From then on, Black history intrigued me, and I wanted more, even from an underfunded school in a troubled city, one next to a previously white-only high school. I just counted my losses – and waited until high school to get the history lessons I wanted.
The next year, I was in a new city I hated – Jupiter – and at a predominately white high school, but that’s another reflection for another day. I knew I’d be put on game. I expected white people to teach me about slavery and segregation. It was their history, too, right? Boy, was I naïve? My school boasted about being one of the tops in the county, but we only briefly touched on the Civil Rights Movement in 10th grade world history. There was an elective class that taught about African American history, but for half a semester; the other half was about the Holocaust. It was as if Black history was optional, an afterthought. Mostly everything I knew about Black history was self-taught. That infuriated me. To me, Black history – the good, the bad, the ugly – conveys that my people always rise above.
Fast forward to 2020, my first year at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I decided to major in journalism, and put emphasis on reporting underrepresented communities. My minor is African American studies, but I’m not happy with what I’m learning. Why? The Black history long taught to me was about the legendary figures and historical events, but rarely about the ordinary people who truly powered the Civil Rights Movement. I wasn’t ready for the lessons on systemic racism, and how legislation enacted to prevent Black people from excelling looms today. As if almost every aspect of society has been touched by racism.
Fast forward to fall 2022 – and my senior year at UF, with me looking to go out with a bang. Professor Ted Spiker sent a mass email about a class focusing on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail happening in the spring. It included a spring break trip to five states across the South and would have Kalisha Whitman as a co-lecturer. My favorite subject, my favorite professor, and the opportunity for someone who has never been out of Florida to finally leave the state. I’m all game. That Herbert Lowe guy whose name was attached to the class was a special bonus.
When I walked into the classroom on the first day, I was too stunned to speak again. I only saw one another Black student. I thought I had the wrong class. Turns out there would be seven of us: two Black, four white and one Latina. Having mostly white students in the class proved to be a good thing, actually. I needed to hear one of them say she took the class to grow more comfortable in reporting stories about race. To hear that another one had a curiosity about Black history. I needed to understand that for my entire life – I had viewed the Black plight as Black history and not U.S. history, and that we all need to learn more about it. Doing so much of it even before the trip make our shared venture that much more worthwhile.
Another thing I didn’t know I needed was the four accompanying students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee. Aside from the newly formed bonds and many laughs along the way, they helped me realize something important. Since they attend an historically Black university, I had assumed they would be human encyclopedias for all things Black history, and that they would put me to shame. After learning that wasn’t the case, I realized that no matter if at a PWI (predominately white institution) or at a HBCU, no one is learning enough about the impact of African Americans on our nation. The history of Black people doesn’t just belong in museums, it should also be in grade school textbooks.Learning so many things about our history with other young Black women just as hungry for it as I was – it was an experience that affected me wholeheartedly, and it is now my favorite college experience.
Yes, traveling to Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Tuscaloosa, Clarksdale, Jackson, Little Rock, Memphis and Atlanta has changed me forever. Not bad for my first time out of Florida. It also marks a new shift in mindset and ideology for me. I learned and experienced so many things: From perpetrators of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing almost getting away with their crimes; to being in a room with the former Alabama attorney general that prosecuted them, to the troubled history associated with “Ole Miss” – the sports moniker for the University of Mississippi. That history was definitely on my mind the next time that I anchored the sports segment of “First at Five,” the local daily TV newscast aired on WUFT-TV at UF.
It wasn’t my only full-circle moment because of the trip. For example, standing in front of an authentic, life-size robe of a KKK member, on display in one of the museums, I recalled asking a teacher in the 10th grade why the Ku Klux Klan can still freely operate as an organization. I still find her answer – because of one’s free speech rights – so conflicting. And learning in another museum about how gifted the enslaved were at creating red brick buildings, and how they built so many official buildings still standing in this country, was beyond unsettling. UF’s campus is nothing but red brick. Do you know how many times I’ve leaned against those buildings and commented on how ugly they were? I can only imagine the story those bricks could tell, especially those used through forced labor.
At each museum, I took my time looking at things, to better reflect on how nearly every aspect of our life in this country is somehow affected by the treatment of Black people. There were so many behaviors and sayings that were uncomfortable to learn, but needed to be learned. For starters, I didn’t learn about Black history on this trip like I thought I would. I learned about America’s history. I didn’t learn about what happened to Black people. I learned about what was done to Black people. I didn’t learn that Black people fought for their rights for equality – I learned that they were given what they were owed.
I am beyond grateful that this trip shaped my perspective in this manner. It was really thought provoking to realize that while this trip only covered the treatment of Black people in America, I still have 194 more countries to learn about. OK, it’s still 195, considering that I am not even close to done learning about the U.S. So, in essence, my biggest takeaway from this trip wasn’t that I learned a whole lot. It was that I still have a lot more to learn.