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Dr. King’s Somebodiness & Self-Esteem

“I Am A Man meant freedom. All we wanted was some decent working conditions, and a decent salary. And be treated like men, not like boys.” — Memphis sanitation worker Taylor Rogers, 1968

Taylor Rogers, like most wage earners in the U.S. sought an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. As a Black person he had grown into a system that exploited Black workers — paying them less, affording them the worst possible positions without a possibility of job growth irrespective of their education or skill, and subjecting them to layoffs or non-payment if they demanded better.

Even as Dr. Martin Luther King circumnavigated the nation delivering speeches and encouraging passive resistance to such injustices, he recognized that at the core of racism was the belief that Black people were not fully human and did not deserve equal access or protection under the law. With institutions in place to uphold segregation — the doctrine of separate and unequal — it was imperative that Dr. King speak directly to Black youth so that mentally they understood they were not inferior.

“Even with loving and caring parents, Black children are taught by society that they are somehow deficient. They are taught that their skin color makes them ‘less than’ through an all-out assault on their minds,” retired educator Dorothea Hail told The Informer. “We endured dilapidated school buildings, restricted access to public libraries — you could not check out books in most, and hostile adults who were offended to their souls that you should attempt to exert your rights as a person — as a citizen.”

Hail, who grew up in Grenada, Miss., said Dr. King’s messages of somebodiness seemed to ignite a particular desire among young people to challenge a system that had robbed their families of their most basic human rights for generations. Somebodiness, coupled with the research presentation of Mamie Phipps Clark on the damage segregated schools caused Black children made youth across the nation take pause.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark would go on to study psychology and create a vital research methodology that combined the study of child development and racial prejudice. Her master’s thesis, “The Development of Consciousness in Negro Pre-School Children,” surveyed 150 Black pre-school aged boys and girls from a D.C. nursery school to explore issues of race and child development — specifically the age at which Black children become aware that they were Black. She would repeat this study, alongside her husband (and fellow psychologist) Kenneth Clark as The Doll Test which looked at 253 Black children aged three to seven years old. Of the children, 134 attended segregated nursery schools in Arkansas and 119 who attended integrated schools in Massachusetts. They each were all shown four dolls: two with White skin and yellow hair, and two with brown skin and black hair. Each student was asked to identify the race of the doll and which one they preferred to play with.

The majority of the Black students preferred the White doll with yellow hair and assigned positive traits to it. Disturbingly, most discarded the brown doll with black hair, assigning it negative traits. The conclusion: Black children formed a racial identity by the age of three and attached negative traits to their own identity, which were perpetuated by segregation and prejudice.

The Clarks’ research results bracketed legal arguments used in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and were invaluable in ending school segregation.

“We were being indoctrinated into accepting that we were second-class citizens and the Whites around us were particularly cruel…they taught their children to be evil and cruel as well in order to keep us believing that we did not deserve more than crumbs,” said Hail, who was once told by a White librarian who took offense to her presence that if you took the brain of a Negro and put it into a bird, it would fly backward. “Dr. King made young people understand that they had ‘skin’ in the game. That we had to hold ourselves as American citizens by fighting against injustices that minimized our self-worth.”

In 2010, when the journal Psychological Bulletin, looked to analyze the effects of racism, on African Americans, a lack of self-esteem was not among them. Bernadette Gray-Little, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, performed a complex review of every piece of research available on Black self-esteem and found that low-income Blacks showed higher self-esteem than whites.

Ekow Eshun, style commentator and former editor of men’s magazine Arena, told The Guardian he was saddened that anybody needed to do a survey to show what most young, Black people know from personal experience.

“Black kids do not have low self-esteem. They are actually forced to think very hard about who they are and to find ways of being themselves by social attitudes. They do not feel like sportsmen or pop stars or thieves or any of the other stereotypes. They feel like real people,” Eshun said.

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