Part of the mural by Third Ward native Jonah Elijah in honor of Black History Month and George Floyd in front of Jack Yates High School in Houston on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. A street mural honoring George Floyd was unveiled Saturday in Houston along two blocks of the street that passes in front of Jack Yates High School, where Floyd was a student. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle via AP)
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Joya Cleveland Black History educator
Joya Cleveland, Instructor for Tulsa’s Strong Tomorrrows program (Credit: Joya Cleveland)
Joya Cleveland, Instructor for Tulsa’s Strong Tomorrrows program (Credit: Joya Cleveland)

Joya Cleveland did not mince words when addressing Black History during a presentation for the Social Work Student Association at The University of Oklahoma. 

“When schools teach about Black history, it is romanticized and whitewashed,” said Ms. Cleveland, who works at Strong Tomorrows in Tulsa.

Starting with information about Black babies’ used as alligator bait and other advertising campaigns during the early 1900s, Ms. Cleveland discussed the lack of value placed upon Black bodies. She laid bare the long-term effects of oppression that transformed into modern-day enslavement. 

Policing represents one area that has historically acted as a for-profit method for maintaining white supremacy. It began with capturing and returning slaves to their owners in the 1800s. The system of policing eventually morphed into the disproportionate rate of innocent Black men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement. 

The 13th Amendment legally outlawed slavery. But White judges and juries often charged and convicted Black men and women with crimes such as “criminal mischief,” and failure to read, setting the stage for legal oppression that continues today. Black “criminality” combined with redlining and other forms of subjugation have led to an overrepresentation of Black men and women incarcerated. The carceral system forces many into prison labor, maintaining the same caste system that began hundreds of years ago. 

Ms. Cleveland then went on to discuss the Clark study with the Tulsa social work students, in which researchers offered dolls to individual children.  Each doll represented either Black babies or White babies. Researchers then asked the children questions about the dolls. These questions included which doll was “good” and which was “bad,” along with which baby doll looked like each child. The young children had internalized racism to such a degree, the results became part of a class action lawsuit brought by the NAACP following Brown vs Board of Education

Racism is also a public health issue, warned Ms. Cleveland. She noted several studies that concluded racism laid the foundation for mental health challenges and struggles. These struggles greatly affect the Black Americans and other people of color who experience them today. The studies range between daily microaggressions and long-term internalized white supremacy. 

The American Medical Association recently declared racism a public health emergency. The association remains the largest and only national body that convenes more than 190 state and specialty medical societies and other critical stakeholders in addressing public health issues. 

Ms. Cleveland ended her presentation with a message about where to go from here. “We need to have these difficult conversations about racism and white supremacy,” she said, encouraging others to use facts that support the systemic racism and racist policies in this country. “Addressing racism is about addressing the self-worth of Black people,” she said. “And we are worthy.” 


Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...

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