While I struggle with the idea that a singlemonth is an appropriate way to celebrate something as fundamental andsignificant as racial or gender identity, I do appreciate the opportunity topause and reflect.
For me, Black History Month has opened amuch richer understanding of the contributions and contributors of Black peoplein the United States. This was an education that I did not receive until Isought it out myself. My white, suburban upbringing in the 1970s and 80s had nohistory books that captured the pivotal moments and stories that I laterdiscovered. Through the years, my curiosity led me to explore the writings ofDr. King, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, and, morerecently, Nikole Hannah-Jones. It was their stories and oratory that opened ahistorical kaleidoscope of brutality, survival, perseverance, and prosperity; thestory of Black life in America from 1619 until today.
I disciplined myself to maintain a clearperspective, to avoid the false equivocation and white-washing (every punintended) of the complex trajectory of slavery and its current scars as somehowbeing less relevant today given the success of people like Oprah Winfrey andDavid Steward. I rejected the false narrative that just because we could pointto examples of Black people accomplishing great things meant that the consequencesof slavery no longer impacted or limited possibility.
I am reminded that W.E.B. Dubois was borninto a free family, but his grandfather had been a slave; and that Mary McLeodBethune who was appointed director of AfricanAmerican Affairs by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been born toformer slaves during the turbulent Reconstruction Era. These are examples of peoplewho have worked diligently throughout their lives to create change for thefuture based on the history of the past. The narrative that frames the historyand context for each of these individuals was intrinsically linked to andimpacted by the consequences of slavery.
So, too, is the story of the Declaration ofIndependence, a document written predominantly by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner. The Declaration espouses that “all men are created equal,” yet inpractice, it gave no rights to Black men, women, or non-land-owning white men. Itwasn’t until 1868, nearly 100 years after its writing, when the 14thAmendment was passed which stated that “all people born or naturalized in theUnited States, including formerly enslaved people” are citizens, guaranteedequal protection under the law. This Amendment changed the interpretation of whomthe Declaration was declaring to include or recognize.
These stories are important because they impartto us that as a nation, we can learn through the teaching of history. They are notonly evidence of our past but also offer beacons of possibility and a hopeful futureto strive toward. Young and old alike need to understand that the greatness of thiscountry rests in its ability to reckon with its gravest sins, recognize thelessons, and commit to a future that is better for all.
This Black History Month, in the year 2023, 404years after the historical marker of slavery was penned, we are witnessing thedismantling of Black history and the hope it engenders. Laws are being passed that criminalizeteaching the history of slavery. This effort to blot out the ancestral experienceof millions of Black Americans and to refuse its truth-telling to students degradesthe history of all Americans.
The history of Black Americans is thehistory of all Americans. There is no world where the sins of slavery can be disconnectedfrom the sinners who perpetrated it, nor from the world that permitted and benefitedfrom its legalization for more than 200 years. We can never hope to rise above the shame until we first admit that ithappened and learn from it. If our children are the future, we must empowerthem with the knowledge of the past so they can lead us toward that dream andthe famed “mountaintop.”