A Treasure of Not Only Black History, But American History as a Whole

White mansion

By Demetria Irwin

Black History Month was always an exciting time for me when I was in elementary school. As the child and grandchild of people who spoke extensively to me about contemporary and historical figures in the African diaspora, I was always eager to share my home-grown knowledge with classmates and teachers.

In fourth grade at (the now-closed) St. Scholastica Elementary School in Detroit, I submitted a four-panel cartoon for my Black History month assignment from my teacher. The first panel was a drawing I made of Madam Walker on her knees, head wrapped in a scarf, washing clothing in a bucket. Panel two was of Madam Walker putting together different concoctions in her home to help with hair growth/health. Panel three was her going door to door selling her wares, and panel four was my earnest attempt to draw that iconic photograph of Madam Walker in the driver’s seat of that fancy early 20th-century car (see the photo below).

My little cartoon was chosen to be featured in the Black History Month section of the school newsletter. Très bien! My original drawings (with captions) in the school newsletter marked the first time I had anything of mine published. Not bad for someone not yet in double digits. (The original newsletter survives, but between me living in several cities and states and my parents moving, I do not know where this precious artifact is precisely.)

I chose Madam Walker as the subject of my project because she felt tangible to me. Of course I had read about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and even Rosa Parks, but there was something about the story of Madam Walker -- starting from the bottom and elevating herself to a socio-economic realm unheard of for little black girls born to former slaves -- that touched me.

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