February is Black History Month in a Divided Nation
BY ASHLEY M. MILLER
Ashley Miller is a graduate of Suffolk University Law School and currently practices law in Peoria.
Black History Month 2017 is coming on the heels of a historic and troublesome time in our nation’s history. Many Americans are mourning the departure of Barack Obama who promised hope and change, while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that his successor, Donald Trump, rose to political power by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.
President Trump ran a campaign that divided Americans along racial, ethnic, economic, religious and gender lines. In addition, the nation is grappling with increased racial tensions between African-Americans and police, burgeoning crime in cities like Chicago and mass incarceration of African-Americans. However, many would argue that despite these problems, all has not been lost. Indeed, more African-Americans are receiving advanced college degrees, rising to political power and achieving middle class status. In order to fully understand this paradox, we have to look at the historical context of the role race has played in the United States.
Oftentimes when we tell America’s history, we tend to magnify the triumphs while deemphasizing the tragedies. However, by glossing over America’s stained past, we overlook the significant and fundamental contributions that African Americans have made to this country. Dr. Carter G. Woodson attempted to rewrite American history so that it included accurate descriptions of African American contributions by creating Negro History Week, which later became what we now know as Black History Month. In establishing Negro History Week, Dr. Woodson’s intent was not to further isolate African-American history from the broader context of American history, but rather to integrate it seamlessly into the teaching of American history. It is important to note that Dr. Woodson was not simply trying to honor the prominent figures in African-American history, but rather bring to light the contributions of countless African-American men and women who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Americans as a whole.
In 2003, National Geographic published a collection of essays titled, “Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture.” The essays describe how young 19th century America depended on black slave labor to create both financial and political capital. Specifically the article points out that:
Enslaved Africans were legally a form of property—a commodity. Individually and collectively, they were frequently used as collateral in all kinds of business transactions. They were also traded for other kinds of goods and services. The value of the investments slaveholders held in their slaves was often used to secure loans to purchase additional land or slaves. Slaves were also used to pay off outstanding debts. When calculating the value of estates, the estimated value of each slave was included. This became the source of tax revenue for local and state governments.
Despite these realities, Americans routinely celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, while neglecting to tell the story of how the millions of destitute slaves that built this country were left to fend for themselves during the racially violent period of Reconstruction. To be sure, if we would accurately portray history, we would know that America’s global economic success and power was built largely on the backs of slave labor. Additionally, we would come to the collective realization as Americans that the treatment of African-Americans during the Post-Civil War and Jim Crow eras was unconscionable. Further, we would understand that the root cause of the poverty and crime we see in inner cities today is not because African Americans are unmotivated, shiftless or violent, but rather because the Jim Crow laws rewarded African-American contributions to this country with poor and segregated schools, legalized discrimination in the workplace and public arenas, and overt racism.
We celebrated America when the 1964 Civil Rights Act which provided protection to all Americans from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin was passed, yet we neglect to tell the detailed accounts of those who were abused, marginalized and killed for rights and privileges we now take for granted. To this point, the nation’s public school children do not learn about Medgar Evers, NAACP leader killed in Mississippi for leading an integration campaign; Amelia Boynton, beaten unconscious as she walked across the Selma bridge; Reverend Bruce Klunder, civil rights activist killed while protesting the building of a segregated school; Fannie Lou Hamer, beaten and jailed as she fought for voting rights in Montgomery, Ala.; or Clarence Triggs, a bricklayer from Louisiana killed after attending a civil rights meetings sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality.
Americans of all races and walks of life honor the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and acknowledge the contributions of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, Maya Angelou and the like. However, it seems that Dr. Woodson’s intentions have been lost in the obligatory annual February celebrations. Indeed, we peruse Black History Month event calendars to find the most interesting Black History Month speaker or panel discussion and attend our preferred event. We post our favorite quote from our favorite civil rights leader once a year and come away with the warm feeling that we did our part in acknowledging history. However until Black history is truly recognized as American history, Black History Month remains a necessity in modern American society. Hence, it is only by having a thorough understanding of Black history that society will be able to authentically celebrate the accomplishments that Black Americans have made to our country, while also understanding the plight of Black Americans and offer solutions to issues that plague Black communities today. Then and only then will Dr. Woodson’s dream be realized, and we can retire Black History Month.