Friday, February 20, 2009

Happy Black History Month!

Meet Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, a notable St. Louis resident. Most people know about her because of the children's home that still bears her name. They might have heard that she, like Madame CJ Walker, was a pioneer in designing and marketing African-American hair care products. What they probably don't know is that she may have been the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, and that she lavished that fortune on her employees and on African-American schools and orphanages.
In it's 1920's and 30's heyday, Malone's Poro Company operated from an enormous St. Louis building that served as something of a community center, with an ice-cream parlor, barbershop, classrooms, and meeting space. Sadly, that building no longer exists, and Malone lost her fortune in a divorce and tax problems. She's faded from national memory since her death in 1957, but a street in north city bears her name.

I gave a little presentation about Annie Malone for one of NFNF's urban parenting classes this week. To be honest, I was terrified. Our clients can be a daunting audience. What do I, who am neither a nurse nor a parent nor a Black American, have to say that they will find helpful or interesting? After my "History of Christmas" presentation for a rural class, I have realized that the white heat of standing before a room of busy impoverished mothers forces you to melt hours of bookish research into a few nuggets of meaning. They aren't going to care about the accuracy of my footnotes or the nuances of segregation law. They aren't going to take detailed notes with an infant wiggling on their lap. I have to find the "So What?" of studying history, and find it fast.

So, I put as much human interest into the presentation as I could. I told them their stories were as much a part of history as those of the past. I encouraged telling family history to their kids, to give them a sense of heritage. I passed around pics of Annie Malone and Poro products. I held Malone up as someone who helped women become self-sufficient and who gave back to her community.
As always, our clients surprised me. A few were distracted, but two were especially interested a quick to volunteer comments about how they view Black History Month. Everyone liked my comments about Madame Walker's fabulous hats and my Dad's stories of his childhood misbehavior. Overall it was an exhilarating and humbling 10 minutes that passed in the blink of an eye.

And it was a look at faces of the future like these siblings:

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