Shoulders We Stand On

President and CEO Teree Caldwell-Johnson was the keynote speaker at a special 2022 Black History Month Celebration which included Governor Kim Reynolds signing Iowa’s African American History Month Proclamation.

Here are Teree’s inspiring remarks:

Our gathering today calls us to the high ground of our ancestors that said in a purifying love that passed all understanding that nothing could keep us from each other and the sun.

It is in this – the enduring essence and spirit of Black History and the opportunity to lift up those that have both paved the way and made a way – that calls us to this time and this occasion.

I was thrilled when I received the invitation to participate in today’s celebration and asked to share a few words on today’s theme – The Shoulders We Stand On. 

Emulating History

In so many ways today’s theme emulates the history – the struggle – the resilience and the collective triumph of our people – a people brought to this country in bondage on a slave ship that docked at Port Comfort, Virginia, over 400 years ago in the year 1619.

While painful and often times uncomfortable, Black History must be acknowledged as part of American History for you to see – understanding Black History allows us to fully and completely embrace our shared history as Americans.

And celebrating it serves as a loving, humbling reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants – giants who were not “slaves” but who were enslaved.

Giants who were both bought and brave – sold and strong.

Giants who embody what it means to be resilient; a resilience that paved the way for many shining examples of Black brilliance to emerge – indeed a level of bold and brave Black brilliance that transcends both time and circumstance.

A brilliance that allows us to stand tall and without apology claim our rightful place in history and the many accomplishments that can be attributed to Black people and the Black race.

There should be no doubt –

I – You – We – stand on their shoulders!


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The phrase Standing on the Shoulders of Giants was first used in 1675 by Sir Isaac Newton in a letter where he states – “If I have seen further – it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Since then, this phrase has become a part of our lexicon and our everyday language is filled with analogies and metaphors alluding to shoulders.

Think about it:

People who are facing a hard challenge are told to “square their shoulders” – “shoulder the load” and “put their shoulders to the wheel.”

Friendly or gregarious people are ones with whom we like to “rub shoulders.”

And uncertain people “shrug their shoulders.”

While superstitious people “throw salt over theirs.”

Insensitive people “turn a cold shoulder” and proud or arrogant people have a proverbial “chip on their shoulders.”

Blunt, honest people “shoot straight from the shoulders.”

While sports heroes, after a tremendous victory or accomplishment, are “hoisted on the shoulders of their admirers.”

And finally, admirable people “stand head and shoulders above” everyone else and wise people, wise people are described as “having a good head on their shoulders.”

Have you ever thought that perhaps we have all these sayings about shoulders because so much of our everyday experience relies on either us or others having broad, flexible, strong and steady shoulders? Ones we can lean on – others that we can cry on, some that will carry us and without question – multiple sets of shoulders we can STAND ON!

I am sure that each of us can call to mind those persons in our lives upon whose shoulders we stand. For many of us this includes parents, coaches, pastors, close friends, favorite teachers, mentors, elected officials, community leaders and historical figures.

As we reflect back upon our lives, we know we would not be where we are today were it not for those “giants” who hoisted us on their shoulders and opened our eyes to new vistas of promise, possibility, and potential.

In the African American community, we celebrate the achievements of our ancestors, their legacies, and how we are connected to their work and their gifts with the phrase,” We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”

And like a sculpture, a quilt or a colorful tapestry that is slowly crafted together, piece by piece, so are the achievements and legacies of Black people in this country.

And without waxing philosophical, perhaps it is a universal truth to say that none of us can birth an idea alone, nor nurture a school of thought without the support of many others.

The fact that we “stand on each other’s shoulders” is a representation of the ongoing and enduring oneness that spans the generations while connecting our past with our present as we position and plan for the future.

Throughout our history, certain men and women have changed us forever. Some of them are famous figures, like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and others are hidden heroes. It’s their struggle and strength that remind us of the rich legacies of our race and our people.

By standing on the shoulders of their greatness we too can manifest our own greatness in ways both big and small. It’s that notion of iron sharpening iron – those heroes and she-roes past and present upon whose shoulders we stand are like the silent champions who walk in our midst – testing our mettle and giving us the strength and courage to carry on.

Lessons Learned

When we stand on the shoulders of giants, I believe we stand on three things:

1. Lessons of History

2. Lessons of Others, and

3. Lessons of Experience

Let’s talk for a moment about standing on the lessons of history.

As we celebrate Black History Month in 2022, let us benefit from the perspective that history can bring. We are not yet the nation that we seek to become, but we are also not the nation we once were.

History can be considered an early warning system and our history is replete with examples of ordinary individuals making extraordinary efforts to move the nation towards racial equality.

We’ve all heard the ago-old adage: history repeating itself. When we choose to study history, we tap into the lessons of our past which provides the opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes.

Now let’s focus on “stand on the lessons of others.” Black History Month serves as both a celebration and a powerful reminder that Black History is American History, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America – our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations. Shining a light on Black History today is as important to understanding ourselves and our communities as it has ever been.

That is why it is essential that we take time to celebrate the immeasurable contributions of Black Americans, honor the legacies and achievements of generations past, reckon with centuries of injustice, and confront those injustices that still fester today.

And finally, let’s briefly talk about “standing on the lessons of experience.”

Our nation was founded on an idea: that all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated with equal dignity throughout our lives. It is a promise we have never fully lived up to but one that we HAVE never and SHOULD NEVER walk away from.

The long shadows of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, and the blight of systemic racism that languishes still today, holding us back from reaching our full promise and potential.

But by facing those tragedies opening and honestly, talking about it, teaching it, embracing it and working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise, we become a stronger and more perfect version of ourselves.

When and only when we lift up and stand on the lessons of history – the lessons of others – and the lessons of experience will we truly be able to validate, honor and dignify those that came before us – the heroes and she-roes on whose Shoulders We Stand On. 

Think about it – who isn’t still inspired by Martin Luther King’s oratory, commitment to racial justice, and his ultimate sacrifice?

Or by the tenacity and fortitude of William and Ellen Craft or Henry “Box” Brown, whose cleverness allowed them to escape from slavery.

And who can’t draw substance from the creativity of Madame CJ Walker or the audacity and courage of prize fighter Jack Johnson?

Who could not continue to battle hate and injustice after listening to the mother of Emmitt Till share her story of both sadness and perseverance?

When life and circumstances get in my way, I take solace in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find comfort in the rhythms of Louie Armstrong, Sam Cook or Dinah Washington. And I draw inspiration from the anonymous slave who persevered so that the culture, Black culture, could continue.

I believe that Black History Month continues as a beacon of hope, light and inspiration in part because of the ultimate giant whose shoulders we stand on – Dr. Carter G Woodson, the found of Black History Month.

Experiencing Black History Month as Woodson envisioned it reminds us that history is not dead or distant from our lives.

Black History – and its celebration throughout February – is just as vibrant today as it was when Woodson created it in February of 1926 – 96 years ago. Black History Month helps us to remember there is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.

And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering the shoulders upon which we stand.