The Imaginable Past

Categories: Representation
03/13/2019

History is written by the victors. From Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great, our textbooks cannot seem to get enough of them. Amidst our current Age of Information, the stories of a distinct demographic of ‘non-victors’ are continuously left out of our scope of knowledge. The bearers of two deadly ‘isms’—racism and sexism—carry the burden. The voices of women of color have been historically silenced. A silence that has been systematically perpetuated by the wells of archival knowledge that we know as history textbooks.

Yes, I am pointing fingers at the people, institutions, and bodies responsible for shaping our understanding of the past. At times, it seems as though my Twitter feed has done a better job of informing me of historical women of color than McDougal Littell and his cousins ever did. These women and their contributions to society were not mentioned in my many years of sitting in high school classrooms. While I sat there, I received what I thought to be the rundown of what happened on Earth before I had popped in a few years back. But why did this rundown so often exclude people that looked like me? The most conventional means of learning about the past seemed to shut out such vital components of my identity. This remains true in so many facets of history—the arts, sciences, even wars. Regardless of the context in academia, the voices of women of color always seemed so faint. I could not help but question what I was capable of and the likelihood of my success. It seemed as though great women appeared only once in a blue moon.

I could not help but question what I was capable of and the likelihood of my success. It seemed as though great women appeared only once in a blue moon.

For almost 35 years after the premiere of Back to the Future, the concept of time travel has been continuously romanticized. I take a rather unorthodox stance on the topic. If I were to sit next to Doc Brown in the DeLorean time machine, honestly, I would be terrified and slightly unsure of what the past would hold for me as a black woman. Aside from witnessing flashing images of blatant racial oppression and thoughts of further gender inequalities, I would be looking for an eject button. Unfortunately, my imagination has not been fed by much else. The imaginable past does not have a lot of room for emboldened and empowered women to exist freely. I could only hope that the future held more for me.

The imaginable past does not have a lot of room for emboldened and empowered women to exist freely. I could only hope that the future held more for me.

If I were to travel back in time to celebrate Women’s History Month, I need to know there are women like me living inspiring, non-victimized, fulfilling lives. I need to know that Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to hold a pilot license, taught herself French and moved to France to gain entry into flying school after constant rejection from schools in the US. I need to know that Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist, led one of the most impactful gay liberation movements all while battling destitution. I need to know that Qiu Jin, a feminist poet and revolutionary, went against China’s patriarchal cultural norms by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing, and seeking higher education. I need to know that Madhubala, one of Bollywood’s most renowned actresses, was incredibly skilled at her craft and recognized as an Indian trendsetter and fashion icon.

Aside from the completely hypothetical instance that I would be time traveling, I need to know the stories of these women because representation matters—in the media, in art, especially in textbooks. We are not only impacted by the historical narratives we are fed, but the ones that we are kept away from. As we make our way through Women’s History Month, I encourage you to seek out history’s hidden figures™. Learn about them. Talk about them. Make their stories known. We hold the responsibility of speaking for the female powerhouses that are not here educate the masses of their truths.


Chioma Odom is a sophomore at Cornell University studying Government and Economics. She was born and raised in Nigeria, where she worked closely with the Girl Lead Hub, a network of adolescent girls dedicated to the empowerment of the Nigerian girl-child. She is an executive member of the Platform @ Cornell chapter, a member of the Nigerian Students Association, as well as a diversity ambassador for Cornell University. She is passionate about international women’s rights and empowerment through education. She is also a freelance graphic designer looking to help small-scale businesses with branding.