The sad holes in American history

Madam C. J Walker was an entrepreneur during the Harlem Renaissance who became the first female millionaire for creating a line of hair care products designed for African American women. (Scurlock Studio/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Madam C. J Walker was an entrepreneur during the Harlem Renaissance who became the first female millionaire for creating a line of hair care products designed for African American women. (Scurlock Studio/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Last week, I had the pleasure of walking around the streets of Harlem with a group of my closest friends. Inspired by the beautiful day outside, and reveling in the stress-free environment that was outside of Storrs, I couldn’t be happier.

Whilst walking the streets I found myself telling my friend that I wished I had lived during the period of the Harlem Renaissance. Although nothing in my immediate surroundings triggered this desire, the sunshine and and warmth were enough to make my mind wander to happier times—to a period full of new beginnings and hope and love.

I didn’t have a motive or agenda when I made my comment. It was a moment of infinite truth, I had a desire to return to a time of hope and possibility, a period where people who were ostracized for so long were being sought out by publishing companies and artists to write their lives’ tales. It was a fleeting moment in my stream of consciousness, but it turns out the world had other plans in store for me.

Upon reaching our destination, Double Dutch Espresso—a tiny hipster coffee shop in the middle of town, my friend approached me and asked if I had already ordered my coffee, to which I responded, “Yes?”

She proceeded to tell me that a man outside the coffee shop was interviewing random people on the street about the Harlem Renaissance and giving out a free coffee to anybody that could answer some questions right. She had told him that I was just talking about my love of the Harlem Renaissance, and that I should come out and take the quiz.

I immediately regretted my decision to say anything about the Harlem Renaissance. I didn’t like the pressure I was feeling to suddenly be able to answer questions about a time period that I was fond of, but that I realistically knew very little about.

When I went outside I was greeted by a man full of life, grinning from ear to ear, excited, I presumed, to be in the presence of the individual that apparently loved the Harlem Renaissance as much as he did. He shook my hand and introduced himself, and proceeded to tell me to hold a microphone and get ready to try and identify some famous people that came out of the Harlem Renaissance.

It took me no time at all to realize that I was virtually incompetent in the matter. I was only able to recognize Duke Ellington on my own. Collectively, my friends and I were able to recognize Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holliday, and Langston Hughes, and recognized the three women in the film “Hidden Figures” without being able to name them individually.

Upon looking at the pictures of the countless artists, poets and entrepreneurs of the Harlem Renaissance that I couldn’t recognize, I felt endlessly guilty. These individuals had achieved milestones unheard of in their time, and yet I couldn’t even recognize them.

One of the individuals that struck me most was Madam C. J Walker. She was an entrepreneur during the Harlem Renaissance who became the first female millionaire for creating a line of hair care products designed for African American women.

It is no small feat for anybody to become a millionaire, let alone a woman of color in a time where open discrimination was still prevalent. It would be easy for me to blame the public education system for my lack of knowledge of a woman who deserves such high esteem, and yet I cannot help but feel personally at fault for my less-than-enthusiastic approach to learning about the Harlem Renaissance and the contributions of black people in American history on my own.


Gulrukh Haroon is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at gulrukh.haroon@uconn.edu.