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Clemmons Family Farm wants to share the joy in Black history

A woman stands on a propeller plane
Wikimedia Commons
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license.

Black History Month is underway.

To commemorate the occasion, the nonprofit Clemmons Family Farm is releasing “Two Bessies on Two Wheels.” It’s a free, online package of African American history curriculum designed for kids in kindergarten through 5th grade. Using lesson plans and other resources, they're invited to learn about two Black women who were pioneers in motorcycle and airplane travel.

And, the Charlotte-based Clemmons Farm even commissioned a new song, called, Vroom! to bring those stories to life.

To talk more about the new curriculum, Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke with Lydia Clemmons, president and executive director of the Clemmons Family Farm, and KeruBo, a Vermont-based singer-songwriter who made the new tune honoring the Bessies. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Lydia, I'll start with you. Can you tell us more about Bessie Coleman and Bessie Stringfield, the subjects of this new curriculum?

Lydia Clemmons: These two Black women are really icons in U.S. history — any U.S. history, not only Black history. Bessie Coleman was born in the late 1800s and became a stunt pilot, defying all odds. And Bessie Stringfield was born in the early 1900s and became a motorcyclist.

Bessie Coleman grew up in Texas, and she grew up picking cotton, washing other people's laundry. They were a part of the Great Migration where many, many African Americans were leaving the south to find other economic opportunities and to escape oppression and racial violence. And in Chicago, what's amazing about Bessie Coleman, is she became a manicurist working in a men's barber shop. And it was there that she was hearing the men talk about airplanes and pilots. In the United States, she was not allowed to become a pilot because of racial discrimination. That didn't stop her. She went to France and got her pilot's license and became a stunt pilot. And that's how she made her living.

Were these women's histories sort of always in the background in your mind? What drew you to focus on them?

This curriculum is part of our broader "Windows to a Multicultural World" curriculum, which is really making an effort to focus on untold stories of African Americans, and black history, which is again part of U.S. history. Often the history taught in classrooms is very limited. The Black history, it focuses just on a few people, and often focuses on important but narrow stories of oppression and discrimination. Those are important stories, but there's not the only story.

And so our curriculum aims to broaden the scope of what kids learn about Black history. We focus on joy, resilience, accomplishments, in spite of the discrimination or the oppression. We're really working hard to humanize the Black story so that we're not just perceived as victims of oppression, constantly fighting racism — but also people who are doing amazing things, or maybe just mundane things. Just living our lives. But the two Bessies kind of represent women who came from very ordinary, simple backgrounds and rose over discrimination and racial prejudices — gender prejudices as well — and became amazing icons in history. A stunt pilot on one hand, and the first Black woman to ride across the United States on a motorcycle on the other.

KeruBo, describe diving into this history and writing the song that accompanies the curriculum. And tell me, did you know about the Bessies before you got started on writing the song?

No I did not. I would never have known about them. I come from Kenya and our history was also from the perspective of the British Empire that had colonized us. I would never have known about it had it not been for Lydia and the Clemmons Family Farm — I would never have known.

Lydia, you're asking young people to create collages and other songs and poems about the two Bessies. I'm wondering why the arts are a good avenue to explore this history?

The arts help people express feelings and emotions that words alone may not. They make things a bit safer. They can build bonds of empathy. And they can also be very joyful. Just the process of creating a collage or a song or a poem, or entering a contest to create a music video. It brings joy and interest to young people and makes the whole history more approachable and more real.

Lydia, the state of Florida recently banned a AP African American studies course. We've also seen intense pushback against the idea of critical race theory. Why is it important to keep expanding the dialogue about Black history, particularly with stories that may not be common knowledge, like the stories that are tied to the two Bessies?

Well, I think it's important for all children, regardless of their race, to learn the full history of the United States. And as I said — not to excuse the pushback and the stuff that's going on — but I think part of the fear is "Oh, this is such a negative history." It is negative history. But that's not the only history. I think learning how, as human beings, we've overcome, we've gone through a lot of negative stuff and still find ways to achieve, to accomplish, to overcome, to be resilient, to find joy — particularly the stories of Black people, and how we've been able to do that — those are important lessons for everybody. We want all children to be able to be joyful and resilient during these really difficult times that we're living in.

Let's talk a little bit more about that joy and that resiliency. KeruBo, your song is the subject of a statewide contest for kindergarten through 5th grade classrooms. And students are invited to create storyboards for a music video based around the song Vroom! for Black History Month. And then the winning classroom gets to actually co-produce and co-star in a video with you. I'd love to know more about that. And what are you hoping students get out of this project?

My hope is that they will keep asking those important questions, and that they will have a more meaningful experience. You know, history CAN BE fun. And then you might end up discovering history that is so impactful, because you'll find characters that look like you — that have done things that you didn't get to learn in class. But you will get to learn about oral history from your grandparents that you will not find taught in a classroom. So I'm just so excited to learn about what they will come up with. The new generation has different perspectives, and they're very creative. So I'm excited to see what's going to come up.

Editor's note: Vermont Public has a partnership with Clemmons Family Farm on separate curriculum.

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