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Commentary

Addressing Racism By Seeking Stories Not Usually Heard

I should have learned in elementary school what I only learned decades later — what I learned about racism, that is.

In the story of race in America, we can never forget the importance of who the storyteller is and why he or she is invested in the story.

As a white person, I see it as my responsibility to actively seek out Black perspectives.

While working on my doctorate in African American literature, I learned that at the end of the 18th century, incredibly, most people believed Black people were immune to yellow fever.

So white leaders asked two Black clergymen, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, to recruit Black volunteers to nurse the sick and bury the dead. The Black nurses did so generously and bravely for several months.

Title page for "A narrative of the proceedings of the black people, during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793: and a refutation of some censures, thrown upon them in some late publications."
Credit Public domain / archives / The National Library of Medicine
/
The National Library of Medicine
Title page for "A narrative of the proceedings of the black people, during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793: and a refutation of some censures, thrown upon them in some late publications."

When the epidemic was over, Mathew Carey, a white publisher, released an account of the ordeal. He praised white officials and citizens for their response to the crisis.

While he acknowledged the service of the Black volunteers, he undercut it, accusing them of price gouging for their services and stealing from households.

Jones and Allen felt an urgent need to respond.

Refusing to let Carey characterize Black nurses as thieves preying upon vulnerable white households, they wrote their own compelling account of the epidemic.

Had I just read Carey’s account, I might have believed that the Black nurses were opportunistic criminals. But because I read the account by Jones and Allen, I learned of the sacrifices the Black nurses made to help those who were ill.

Many of them temporarily left their families and occupations to care for those stricken with the fever. They often worked for free. Allen himself got yellow fever and was hospitalized, but survived.

We need to look beyond the stories we’ve always been told, and start looking for the ones we’ve never been told.

Many American schools still provide us with only a white lens through which to view our history. But that history was also lived by Black people and many other people of color.

My fellow white Americans, it’s high time we find out what we’ve been missing all along.

Marie Troppe has a PhD in African American Literature and works at Holyoke Community College.

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