Young scholar speaks out on Black history, White privilege

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Minneapolis native Shvonne L. Johnson is working on a master’s degree in public
history and the African Diaspora from Howard University.
-Photo courtesy of Shvonne L. Johnson

Growing up in Minneapolis, Shvonne L. Johnson often was told how special she was.
“I felt isolated with the praise I got. There always were these subtleties that I experienced being an African American student in honors classes — these subtleties that I was an exception to my people; that I was different,” recalled Johnson, a 1998 graduate of DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. “It was something that made me not want to embrace being Black. No one ever said that it was wrong being Black, but no one ever talked about it being good [either].”

After graduating from high school, Johnson first attended college at Alabama A&M. “It was there where I was introduced to a world [of Black history].” There, she read notable historical works by such Black authors as Lenore Bennett, Jr. and a book written by Marcus Garvey, assigned to her by a Black female professor who left a profound impression upon her.
“That literally has changed my life,” admitted Johnson. “It got me on a springboard to study [Black history]. I started to realize that we Black folk are not limited to the paragraph you saw in [the U.S.] history [books] we were taught in. I grew up in Minnesota always feeling the silence of not knowing my history.”
Johnson eventually left Alabama A&M and returned to the Twin Cities area to attend Metro State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social science in 2006 while working for five years as College of St. Catherine’s multicultural outreach coordinator.
“I made a commitment then that African American history was going to be something that I needed to know more about, and I was going to dedicate even my own time to learning [Black history],” pledged Johnson. “I developed a presentation [in 2005] for a Black History Month program — 16 slides — which now has developed into over 120 slides and [is] published in a curriculum called ‘Racism and How It Affects Your Health.’”
More importantly, being a lifelong student of Black history “[isn’t] about what White people are doing or about racism, but it’s about what am I going to do about how strong my people have been,” Johnson asserted. Believing that her adult life has been “so divinely destined,” she believes it is “this path that I needed to be on.”
She received a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow at Howard University in 2009 and expects to complete it in July, as well as graduating from the Historically Black University with a master’s degree in public history and the African Diaspora. She also has written a poetry anthology.
At a diversity training workshop she attended at age 21, Johnson said she learned the “language of White privilege and internalized oppression.
“I started to see those things visibly in our school systems and in my own personal experience,” she added. “I knew when I was a student, it was always assumed that my fellow White students knew more than I did; but oftentimes that wasn’t the case. But I was always the one having to prove or the one [being] second guessed.”
Johnson has made numerous presentations across the country on “the conception of racism… Racism is not an accident. It was strategically done,” she explained.
She cites as an example that this county’s Founding Fathers, “Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster — all these men who were so influential and the cornerstone of our history had very painful beliefs about the inferiority of Black people.”
Johnson was a featured speaker at the 12th Annual White Privilege Conference, held April 13-16 in Bloomington. Conference organizer Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. heard one of Johnson’s presentations a couple of years ago in San Diego and invited her to speak at his four-day conference. “He had invited me last year but my [school] schedule wouldn’t permit me [to attend],” Johnson recalled.
She also appeared at the Celebration of Fatherhood, held April 17 at Kwanzaa Community Church in North Minneapolis. “We need to celebrate our brothers,” believes Johnson. “We need to celebrate the ones who are taking care of kids who aren’t theirs, taking care of the community — there are enough of them that are doing it.”
Her talk at the White Privilege Conference focused on “the convict-leasing program and the chain gang, and how is that related to the prison-industrial complex today,” noted Johnson. “If we really examine our history in those terms, we can see the manifestation of a system that never changed but just evolved.
“One of the things I really want people to take away is that this isn’t about blaming anybody but this is about clarifying a story. The reality of it is that people have been lying about our story, our history from day one.
“It’s not for individuals to walk away feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m so bad,’” she pointed out, “but there is an underlying system of White supremacy that runs this country. It’s a system that flows.”
“I am a historian,” Johnson proclaimed. “Although I don’t know how it comes across, but it is embedded with the deepest belief of us being able to overcome any crisis and any circumstance. We have the capability, the brilliance and the capacity to do it. We have to come to the truth of who we are.”

Look for a front-page article on the White Privilege Conference in next week’s MSR.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to