February has always been known as Black History Month in which we honor African American history and heritage as well as the achievements and accomplishments of many black American notables. However, after seeing the PBS documentary on African American History called The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, somehow I don’t think devoting a month to black history doesn’t really do any justice. Though Black History Month mainly exists to add diversity to a white male-dominated historical narrative that has become known as American History. Now I am not advocating a White History Month because we all know too well the great history and accomplishments of white Americans. Yet, in many ways, African American history is just as important in the American historical narrative because even if you’re not black, much of it still helps define who we are as a nation, especially in racial relations.
Sure African Americans have been a marginalized people and subject to racism ever since they were brought to America as slaves during the 1600s. Yet, this is a group that not only overcame slavery and segregation but also had great influence on much of our popular music to this day as well as made other accomplishments. Blacks have fought for our country in many of the major US wars just like any other groups of soldiers even in the days of slavery and segregation. African music influences have given rise to genres like jazz, blues, R&B, rock, gospel, hip-hop, and others, which have plenty of fans and imitators worldwide of all skin tones and cultures. For instance, American blues music has always been big in the UK while some of the earliest rock n’ roll musicians were African Americans. The American Civil Rights Movement was not only started by African Americans but also inspired plenty of other demonstrations throughout the nation and worldwide and continues to do so. So it’s no wonder Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Then we have African American scientists like George Washington Carver (who helped start peanut agriculture), Percy Julian (a chemist who pioneered synthesizing drugs from plants), Charles Drew (who helped start the blood bank), Benjamin Banneker (helped survey Washington D.C. and authored a series of successful almanacs), and Ruth Ella Moore (worked on blood grouping and enterobacteriaceae). We also have African American authors like Langston Hughes (who was also gay), Zora Neale Hurston (also social scientist), Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and others.
However, our African American history also show that the US was never the perfect country and shows how racism is still one of our nation’s great sins as well as a threat to liberty and prosperity, especially when you add poverty in the mix. We need to understand that even when our Founders sought to create a new nation conceived in liberty, much of the African American population was still left out wearing the chains of slavery. Free blacks weren’t much better either and could end up as slaves as well. African Americans fought in two world wars while still a people subjected to the Jim Crow Law and segregation with many subjected to disenfranchisement (under such methods like the Grandfather Clause and the poll tax) and were targets of racial violence in the South (many of which are crimes that went unpunished). Even today with a black president, blacks are still subject to racism, especially blacks living in poverty who get the brunt of it. Poor blacks are more likely to face jail time than any other group as well as be subjected to harsh disciplinary measures at school, and be victims of gun violence, especially under Florida’s Stand Your Ground which is a disaster. They are also very likely to be shamed for their poverty as well as for seeking public assistance. Of course, African Americans still face discrimination in the job market, in the healthcare system, and in other fields. And for a long time in the classroom, their history was considered less important and a significant portion has been left out of the narrative.
Furthermore, black history is important in America because it helps reaffirm the American premise that anything is possible. Time after time, African Americans have showed us how a people can rise from slaves to participating citizens who elected one of their own as president. Sure they may have had help from benevolent white people, but in some ways they did manage to stick up for themselves and for what was right. There may have been white abolitionists during the antebellum years, but the anti-slavery movement didn’t have much teeth until a former slave named Frederick Douglass came along. And it was African Americans who led the Civil Rights Movement. Still, like it or not, African Americans have made history which has affected their lives but ours as well and we need to honor that. So perhaps instead of dedicating a whole month to black history, maybe we should include African American history in the same historical curriculum in schools since blacks have played a key role in American History which should be respected.
Well said, Megan. The history of African Americans should give us all great hope that things can change.