COLLEGE STUDENT • Slavery is only one strand of black experience

Being a college student plays a significant role in my life.

I am always asked by people, 'So, what are you studying?' The response usually goes something like this, 'Yadda, yadda, yadda, and I'm minoring in black studies.'

'Really? Black studies?' comes next. 'What does that mean?'

What does it mean? What makes a young, white woman interested in black history and culture?

Having moved from the melting pot that is Los Angeles to Portland, I slowly began to realize that the one thing I missed was the myriad of cultures that were a part of my everyday life. I began to seek out those experiences here in Portland. That search led me directly to the black studies program at Portland State University.

I was so scared my first day; I thought for sure that I would be the only white person in class. I remember being distinctly aware that for the first in my life I would be the one who was in the minority.

After a year of study, I can truly say that the program has changed the way I view the world. So much has been revealed to me. Actually, it wasn't until I began studying black history that I understood just how incomplete and distorted the traditional history I learned actually was.

I had always loved history class. I mean, you have to admit, the story of Thanksgiving is great! Yea for the Pilgrims and all. But the only aspect of black history that kids are taught is slavery. And to make matters worse, the significance of the issue isn't addressed. Slavery is taught in such a benign way so as not to shock, or affect in any way, the tender, developing mind.

As a young woman who prides herself on her quest for knowledge, I felt let down and disappointed by the realization that what I thought to be the truth was fiction, and the real stories were hidden from all except the few who choose to go looking for answers.

If you thought the Pilgrim saga was exciting, you're in for a real treat when you hear the stories that fill archives of black history.

Take, for instance, the story of Moses Williams, a black Buffalo Soldier in the Indian Wars. He won the Medal of Honor for his actions and lived out his life in the Portland-Vancouver area. Then, there is black mountain man Moses Harris. He was a popular wagon train guide in the 1840s who brought thousands of white immigrants safely to Oregon. And the list goes on.

Americans need to learn these stories. Our children need to have heroes of all colors to look up to. During Black History Month, take this opportunity to learn new stories and new truths. Knowledge is the key to understanding, and understanding is the door that opens up on a world of compassion.

Jill Harriman is a senior at Portland State University majoring in community health education and minoring in black studies. She works for Providence Health System and lives in Southwest Portland.

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