Our Heroes

Our+Heroes

By SIA CHOKSHI’21, SAANVI BHUTEJA ‘23, and MAHA MUSTENSIR ‘23

Black History Month runs from February 1 to March 1, a month that symbolizes the pivotal role African-Americans played in United States history. Over the past few weeks, we’ve reached out to a multitude of teachers and students, asking about who their black heroes were. Answers ranged from poets to mothers. Below you can read the inspiring responses from our teachers and students. 

Teachers: 

Jennine Duggan: 

Ms. Duggan, a Special Education teacher at EHS, when describing her hero, said:

“I would have to say that the person who has inspired me the most is my mom Jewell Takeall. When she was born she lived in a home that had one room and an outhouse. She grew up in South Jersey where many opportunities for black people were not available. My mom tried her hardest to succeed despite having an alcoholic father, being the oldest of four children, and growing up poor. However, my mom finally made her way to NYC on her own right after graduating high school. My mother never looked at herself as a smart person, even to this day, but she would use the skills she had to make a better life for herself.  She was able to open her own daycare center and was a successful business owner for over 30 years, opening from six am to six pm every day. She went from running the business on her own to having employees. Her work ethic is what has created an identical work ethic in me and inspired me to be the first college graduate in my family. She always told me that as a black woman I would have to work extra hard and I carry that with me every day to be my best self.” 

Charese Johnson: 

Ms. Johnson, an English teacher at EHS, described her hero below:

“I chose James Baldwin as my “Hero”. Born on August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was a prominent African American writer, poet, and activist.  He wrote such books as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”.  Although his stories are very poignant and awe-inspiring, his activism is what makes him a hero to many, including myself.  One of his famous quotes is, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time“.  This quote, which still resonates today, explains that if a black person has even a partial understanding of how society and laws work in this country, they will constantly be angry at how disproportioned they are.  He was more than willing to bring light to the difficulties of being black even in a time when doing so could be dangerous. Baldwin used every television and radio opportunity he was given to bring light to the inequities between blacks and whites in this country.  He was a voice that we needed then and that we still need today.  James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in France.  Here is a clip of one of his famous appearances in which he attempts to explain why “I am not your Negro“.”

https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/i-am-not-your-negro-future-negro-clip/

Kenneth Brown

Mr. Brown, choir teacher at EHS, wrote about his hero below:

“In my humble opinion, a great leader is one who sacrifices himself in the service of others. Great leaders are not influenced by the whims of the citizenry but rather by what is morally right. The leader that most embodied these characteristics was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Looking right into the face of hatred, physical harm to himself and his family, he stood firm in the fight for justice for all Americans. He once said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” His courage to speak truth to power paved the way for eradicating many social injustices we take for granted today. Something as simple as the right to vote… the right to protest, the right to eat at a restaurant, access to public accommodations, and indeed the right to pursue happiness for yourself and our family are rights for which many had to fight, and in the case of Dr. King, give their life. Dr. King also said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” It is hard to believe that so many years after the assassination of Dr. King, we still are trying to live up to so many of these lofty ideals. Once again, we live in an America that is extremely divided, filled with hatred, and totally incapable of having civil conversations in the search for common ground. Lastly, one of my favorite quotes of Dr. King, and one by which I strive to live, is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, and only love can do that.” Today, I find myself tempted to do what is easy and give in to my worst instincts to hate those who hate me, to dehumanize those who dehumanize me. Then I am reminded of these powerful words of Dr. King, and I decide to make the harder choices to love those who hate me, to do good to those who come against me. These are the characteristics of a person of true integrity, which I daily strive to be. 

It is intentional that I did not begin this response by stating what schools Martin Luther King attended and what degrees he earned. At the end of one’s life, it is not those things that are important, but rather…the life lived, and the service rendered while striving to make this world a better place in which to live. Even without the Ph.D. he earned from Boston University or the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize bestowed upon him in 1964 for his stance for non-violence during the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would still be one of the greatest leaders in our American history. 

Michael Piccolo:

Mr. Piccolo, a business course teacher at EHS, described his hero below:

“Each person must live their life as a model for others.”  Words we should all live by and the person who said these words certainly did.  Rosa Parks, a woman of short stature, but grand in actions.  Her courage and strength pushed forward a movement that, to this day, still struggles for acceptance.  Her refusal to give up her seat on a  bus in Montgomery Alabama showed strength and determination, upholding her beliefs without harsh words or violence, just quiet action.  Just having the ability to take a stand and have such a large effect on society is both a sign of strong character and commitment.

It is that type of tenacity and a strong sense of values that make her a hero and someone that I greatly admire.

Leeanne McKnight:

Mrs. McKnight, a math teacher at EHS, wrote about her hero below:

An African-American hero of mine is Oliver Brown, who famously fought for desegregation of schools in the landmark civil rights case “Brown vs. Board of Ed” in 1954.  Because of his efforts, schools in today’s America are a rich tapestry of cultural diversity.  Such diversity positively affects everyone involved in education, including students, teachers, administrators, and society at large.  I would not be who I am today as a person if it were not for the community I belong to as a teacher, peer, and mentor in Edison High School.

Students

Jamya Spratley ‘23:

An African American writer who shed light on the black community at its lowest. Turned the dark times into radiation of light. His writings flourished from books to poems, and even newspaper articles. He had a rough life as he was only raised by his mother. Later on, he moved to Cleaveland where he began writing the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” As a black man, he finished college at Columbia University located in New york. This cultivated his admiration for the cities. He worked as a steward on a Freighter Bound too. This accomplished man is Langston Hughes. 

Langston Hudges grew up in a time where African Americans weren’t appreciated for their amazing work. It was taken from them, nonetheless, they had no way of portraying their true talents. By writing about the struggles that we as black people faced, it gave a real unfiltered look into those challenges. Reading his novels/poems, he gave a sense of humor and spirituality to everything. His simple way of writing is so impactful for it relates to the present struggles black people go through today. He teaches that through the rough times you should persevere and keep going. Don’t let those prejudices and injustices keep you away from chasing your dreams. The time he took to write and to thoroughly explain the black struggles is an achievement in its own; to create feelings and morals is another. He lived in a period of racism, despite, he proceeded to give a purpose to the world. I like to live my life with meaning in which I carry with me wherever I go. As a black woman, I will be confronted with struggles, but that one struggle is what keeps me going. As said by Langston Hughes, “Let the rain kiss you, Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops, Let the rain sing you a lullaby.” This quote impacted me because he explains that through the challenges which he refers to as rain, use it as a way to channel light. Those dark moments are what make you who you are. Don’t let them define you. HAPPY BLACK HISTORY MONTH!!!

Adedoyin Ayeni ‘23

The Shouts and Wails of a Grieving Mother

An educator, an activist, a wife, a mother.

She stared at the body the police claimed belonged to her son.

Her body dropped to the ground.

“Lord, take my soul,” she cried.

His body was swollen, disfigured, unrecognizable. 

Teeth were missing. 

His ear was severed.

His eye, detached from the socket.

Emmett Till. 

That name rings in the ears of Black people. 

A ring. 

The only thing that was distinguishable. 

Once again, Mamie Elizabeth Till stared at the body of her tortured son.

She let out a cry.

A cry so loud, 

Yet so soft at the same time.

Even in her pain, 

Even in her misery, 

She did the unthinkable. 

An open-casket funeral. 

With her heart filled with rage, 

She called the Chicago Defender 

In no time, pictures of her son’s mangled body were everywhere

Magazines, newspapers, television 

His name could not be forgotten

50,000 people went to see Emmett at his funeral

All across the country

Bodies shivered 

Tears were shed 

Prayers were said

Mamie Elizabeth Till instilled outrage in the American people 

She made her pain known. 

Selfless. 

She put herself out in the open.

A rock, an instigator, a maverick

The events that occurred after the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy were important moments in history. Mamie Elizabeth Till burned the disfigured face of her son in the minds of white and black people all over the country. She ensured that her son’s story did not end with him being lynched unjustifiably. Her bravery was a catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement. Her activism did not stop after the death of her son was broadcasted all over America. She taught in Chicago public schools for 23 years helping to educate students living in poverty. She created “The Emmett Players,” an organization centered around helping students outside the classroom. She became a seeker for the Civil Rights Movement and a fighter for the rights of Black people. Her strength inspires people every day. She is a fighter and she embodies how important black women are to society. Mamie Elizabeth Till is not only a hero to me but a hero to Black people all over the world. 

Sia Chokshi ‘21

Words are powerful, whether written or spoken. Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, is someone who has learned to harness the power of words. On January 20, 2021, she became one of the stars of President Biden’s inauguration. As a young person, watching someone like Gorman have a huge role in one of the greatest events of this decade is awe-inspiring. Amanda Gorman has the spirit of a role model and is someone who I can only dream of being like. 

This woman has overcome many odds and has a long list of accomplishments, including being a United Nations Youth Delegate and leaving Anderson Cooper without words. The current first lady, Dr. Biden, handpicked Gorman, yet another extraordinary experience. 

Her truths during her poem rang true on January 20 and hopefully inspired hundreds of people to make a change. She pulled her words together through current events, and her own personal feelings. Her poem “The Hill We Climb” includes the line “A country that is bruised but the whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.” This line is difficult to wrap my mind around. It is infinitely powerful and contains such a rousing message. Gorman uses her position and her words to rally the country and emphasize just how important President Biden’s inauguration is and just toes the line at the effect she could have in the future. 

Speaking at the inauguration has opened hundreds of doors for Gorman and has begun her introduction to the general public. She looks forward to running for president, a high-reaching goal, and one I am sure she will accomplish. Amanda Gorman, although young, has officially cemented herself as more than deserving of being a hero. 

Saanvi Bhuteja ‘23

A poet, a civil rights activist, and an award-winning author, Maya Angelou, continues to inspire and influence our world with meaningful words, sparking further desire to provide gender and racial equality through her significant literature. “You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” Her determination evident, Angelou placed a large effect on our nation in terms of maintaining a continuous fight for rights and justice everywhere. 

Angelou faced multiple struggles with sexual abuse, a highly shunned subject within African American communities in the past. However, her silence for the past four years was put to an end through her powerful best-selling books. Many of her publications revolved around feminism, family, love, and race – all contributing to the reason I look up to her on a daily basis. 

Maya Angelou, a powerful and positive woman, is my hero since I would not be who I am today without her inspiring perseverance and dedication. 

Maha Mustensir ‘23

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” These words by the widely-renowned and highly prolific author, James Baldwin, is what makes him my hero. Baldwin’s fiery writing isn’t only a source of entertainment, but work that openly addresses issues of racism, poverty, and the imbalance of power and justice. 

The grandson of a slave and a resident of the Harlem neighborhood in New York, tied to the shackles of poverty, Baldwin didn’t necessarily have the ideal childhood. Nevertheless, he found his passion for writing and ever since has used it to voice his opinions and spread awareness for the prevalent conflicts and hostilities that targeted his people. Struggling with his homosexuality and the obligation to conform to a society that was already well under pressure, Baldwin went to spend time in Europe which later is proven to be an integral part of his writing career. When he returned to the United States, James Baldwin was ready to take on the responsibility of aiding the civil rights movement.

James Baldwin has been one of the most influential and powerful authors and vocal activists for this country. His stories are universal tales of suffering, struggle, redemption, and love and provide a perspective for aspiring writers and readers like me to become enthusiasts of his work and motives.