By NICK CHILES
As the father of two talented young black girls, I know that sometimes the most important thing I can do to spark their ambition is to simply tell them that they are capable. I can see something click in their brains: if Dad thinks I can do it, that means that I can. The trust and the encouragement from someone who loves them are incredibly powerful tools of motivation.
I couldn’t help but think of the act of instilling bravery in my little girls when I watched pop star Jordin Sparks talking about the incredible legacy of Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley, a slave who was eventually freed before her death at age 31, was the first published African-American poet and the first published African-American woman.
The folks at Wells Fargo chose the talented and adorable Sparks (Watch her video BELOW) to help them publicize the incredible treasure trove of African American history that’s been gathered over the years by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey in what is now internationally known as The Kinsey Collection—what the remarkable couple call their “35-year life of collecting the African American experience and culture.” The Kinsey Collection is touring the country this summer in an exhibit sponsored by Wells Fargo to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. (At the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina from June 27–September 14 and at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture from November 1–January 10, 2014.)
The Kinseys have also published a gorgeous 200-page book that displays their wonderful collection on printed pages—though the book, while lovely, can’t compare to seeing these works in person. There’s also a fabulous website, with videos and lectures chronicling the works amassed by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey.
“African American history is American history,” stated John G. Stumpf, the President and CEO of Wells Fargo, in explaining the importance of the collection. “The rare artifacts and artwork of the Kinsey Collection serve as reminders of the principles of freedom, liberty and equality that play such an important role in our way of life.”
The Kinsey’s collection includes a book of poetry published in 1773 by the incredible Wheatley, whose talent and bravery 240 years ago should stop us in our tracks in 2013. Widely regarded as the founding figure of black literature, Wheatley actually had to endure the indignity of an “inspection” by a crew of Boston elites, including founding father John Hancock, who doubted that a slave girl could actually write such stellar works of poetry. But she endured it all and kept writing.
How could any author, even 240 years later, not be inspired by that kind of courage and fortitude? And more importantly, how can little black girls not be uplifted and motivated?
Wheatley demonstrated that none of us can predict or dictate from where talent and genius will sprout. Sure, she was a lowly black girl born in Africa sometime around 1753 who was sold into slavery and shipped to the New World, but Wheatley never let her origins constrain her. She started writing poetry at the age of 13 and eventually became so celebrated that in 1776 George Washington invited her to his home after the publication of her poem “To His Excellency, George Washington.”
Wheatley is truly an American hero.
Using the Kinsey Collection as the impetus, Wells Fargo will be asking ordinary folks to share the stories of black history that resonate in their own families—stories of heroism and bravery but also just tales of survival and strength. It’s a valuable opportunity for all of us to recognize the amazing stories and legacies that exist all around us—legacies that we need to be tapping into to help us navigate our own lives in these trying times.
After all, calling on the Phillis Wheatleys in each of our pasts can help us get through any challenge that 2013 throws in our way.
This post is sponsored by Wells Fargo. As always, thank you for reading our blog and supporting our sponsors.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.