“Black culture, contributions, and consciousness – they are the past, the present and the future.” So ends the foreword of Timelines From Black History, newly released in the U.S. and written by author and editor Mireille Harper, and so begins an extraordinary celebration of Black history in the pages that follow. At the dawn of a new administration, in the continuing movement of Black Lives Matter, and as young students everywhere watch with keen eyes, the message of Timelines From Black History is, indeed, perfectly timed.
What is the message? That history books have underestimated and overshadowed the accomplishments of Black leaders for too long. That today’s students deserve a more current and vibrant display of Black accomplishment. And that a series of exquisitely detailed visual timelines spotlighting Black legends across nationality, gender, religion and heritage is the answer we need.
During the week of the book’s U.S. release, middle and high school Être girls wanted to know more. They raised their hands via email to ask questions, and Mireille Harper graciously answered. Below is an edited version of that interview.
Ê: We read that you grew up hearing stories about Black heroes from your mother, but that once you went to school you wondered why these leaders were not in your history books. How old were you when that happened and did you address it at the time?
MH: I was in primary school when I first realised there weren’t many books that were representative of Black history. I was probably around seven or eight when I really came to realise that there wasn’t a lot of material around the history of Black people across the diaspora.
“I remember feeling confused as to why, when we learnt about black history, it was only to discuss slavery or very well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela.”
I don’t remember addressing it in primary school but in secondary school, I would often raise figures I knew more about like Mary Seacole. However, my secondary school wasn’t the most progressive of places and I felt like if I raised the subject, I was either belittled or not taken very seriously.
Ê: We think early mentorship can have a huge impact on girls, whether our mentors are found in real life or within the covers of a book. Who were your first mentors and why were they so important to you?
MH: This is a great question! Honestly, all the mentors in my life were most likely family members. I have a lot of involved, engaged and loving aunties and cousins who have supported me whatever I do. I also have a mother who is incredibly hard working and intelligent so I looked up to her a lot and sought a lot of knowledge and wisdom from her. For me, it was very important to have this support in my life and to know I was loved, supported and heralded even if the world around me wasn’t so much the same.
Ê: What prompted you to write this new Timelines book and do you have a favorite legend or leader in the book?
MH: It was actually all down to my editor, Steven, who I had worked on Timelines of Everyone with. He thought it was paramount for us to work on a book celebrating the leaders, legacies and legends of Black history, especially at a time when acts of violence against Black people were so high and our celebratory stories were being eroded. I think a lot of people in Timelines from Black History are great figures who have changed the course of history, but I think my personal favourites have to be Nanny of the Maroons (who I mentioned in my foreword), Maya Angelou (who is one of my favourite writers) and Rosa Parks, whose legacy is often overlooked (she was a huge advocate against gender-based violence, and people often just refer to her as ‘the woman who wouldn’t stand up on the bus’).
Ê: We are coming of age during Black Lives Matter and are watching young activists raise their voices to bring change – we love that Mari Copeny and Marley Dias are in this book! What do you want today’s girls to know about their ability to be heard and make a difference right now?
MH: I think it is so amazing to see young activists across the world raising their voice to bring change. Mari and Marley are incredible, and I have been closely following the work of Vanessa Nakate, one of the most brilliant climate activists of today.
“I think it’s paramount that today’s girls recognise that they have the ability to change the world, and even with the oppressive and unfair systems that we live in, little changes can evoke huge ripples.”
Though times are still difficult, it is vital that we recognise where we get our voices heard. With the Internet, social media and new platforms, there are more places for young girls to share their thoughts and ideas, and I think that’s the key to recognising the power they have in making a difference in the world we live in.
Ê: When you were a child listening to your mother’s stories, did you ever imagine that you would become a cultural storyteller and role model for girls around the world? How does that make you feel?
MH: This is a big label – I don’t know if I yet see myself as a cultural storyteller – I just recognise that because of the platforms that I have had the privilege to be on, I have been given more spaces to talk about my culture and heritage. If anything, I count my place in working on this book as being a small vessel to carry that knowledge on.
“It is a big responsibility to be a role model so it’s something I don’t take lightly.”
I think, for me, life is a journey of learning, so I continue to fill myself with knowledge, learn from those who inspire me and who I see as role models, and pass it on.
With gratitude for her insight and anticipation for a growing Timelines series, girls everywhere have an impactful role model in Mireille Harper. Girls – as you move through your history books, read with a critical eye. Raise your hands to ask hard questions about those on your assigned pages, and those you find absent. And know that with mentors like Mireille Harper at your back, your place in the timeline of history is waiting.