A man who never saw himself in his schoolbooks finds a way to breach the ivory tower

Illustration by Donte Neal

Illustration by Donte Neal

History Lessons

essay by Donte Neal

I never saw myself in the history of the United States of America during my K–12 education. It made me feel invisible. We had Black History Month, but the learning points were either solicitously innocuous, patronizing or about slavery. The Pledge of Allegiance got harder and harder to state. Land of the free, ya know?

I went through years of education acquired in systems and institutions not designed with one of the sibling creators of this nation in mind. Where nationally and cross-culturally important black Americans are learned about only alternatively.

I was introduced to Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in my late teenage years. Whoever it was that first insisted I get familiar with his work had a copy of “The Souls of Black Folk” handy in that moment. At the bottom of a sigh, they passed it to me and used their eyes to emphatically say, “Read this.” 

I tried a few times to dig into it, but it bucked at me with a dense, hyper-indecipherable, inaccessible style of writing. I asked myself if I lacked the reading comprehension to truly grasp the language, or if maybe I wasn’t interested enough in the subject. I beat myself up, but in the end I kept it real with myself and shrugged, thinking, “I’m not ready for that yet.”

I struggled, too, with a feeling that I couldn’t define. In a poem written by Amiri Baraka, he eerily and suspiciously laments, “There’s something in the way of things.” Something in the shadows or hiding in plain sight. Manipulating and churning the ugliness of ourselves to the surface, then lurking on the fringes to watch the chaos unfold. Whatever it is, it persists as a formidable and malicious opponent. 

That feeling, of an internalized conflict and multifaceted personality fragmented by an oppressive society, was something I couldn’t articulate. Was it also the unsettling and provocative feeling faced by LeRoi Jones, the man who renamed himself Amiri Baraka as a means toward self realization? Was that feeling, in fact, “double consciousness”? It’s a phrase coined by Du Bois, but introduced to me by Maryam Pugh, the CEO of Philadelphia Printworks, a company that strives to create a new culture of inclusion and activism. 

I came to see it as a mirror of my school experience: Education vs. My Education. To be complete, personally and culturally, I needed to take responsibility for my own journey for knowledge and truth. The seed of an idea was planted to erase the years of feeling invisible, and I watered it withknowledge. When I was taught about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I also knew about Malcolm X. When I was told about Madam C.J. Walker, I was reminded of Marcus Garvey. In a different world, these black intellectuals would have had colleges and universities named after them, and curricula in which I would have seen myself. I designed college sweatshirts emblazoned with their names and Philadelphia Printworks—under the project name “School of Thought”—sent them out into the world. 

I feel proud when I see someone wearing one of those sweatshirts, but I still don’t have the satisfaction of conquering that book by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s still dense. Hyper-indecipherable. Inaccessible. I tell myself, “So are the solutions to the plight of my people.” Available, but on the opposite side of a very, very thick wall. 

Donte Neal is an illustrator and graphic artist.“School of Thought” apparel is available at philadelphiaprintworks.com.