I’m all for celebrating the accomplishments of people of all backgrounds – of course! But, sometimes, we can minimize the depth of people’s experiences by turning heritage month celebrations into lists of who invented what.
We can do better than that!
Sometimes, those of us who are not identified as African American think of Black History in terms of a time when Americans of African descent got the right to vote or the right to sit at a lunch counter. Those rights were no small deal, however, the obstacles faced by African Americans and other traditional outsiders were so much deeper and wider than that and included: the right to know your own name, the right to know and live with your family, the right to hold office, the right to be in the military, the right to sign contracts, the right to buy homes, the right to enter most professions, the right to read, the right to go to school, the right to medical care, the right to refuse sterilization, the right to give evidence in a courtroom against whites, the right to sit on a jury, the right to live without constant threat of physical harm and death to you and your loved ones and on and on. The fact that in spite of all this danger, disrespect and discrimination African Americans made contributions in every field of American life is a true testament to the human spirit.
We cannot underestimate the impact of any cultural group who is kept from seeing themselves in all their glorious humanity. And we don’t seem to get the danger to whites as well when they are unaware of the radicalized nature of every aspect of American life.
In order to survive and even thrive under this constant onslaught, African Americans were able to lean on the gifts from their African cultures as well as develop a unique African American culture that is nurturing, strong and varied. Each child who claims African heritage deserves to know about the beauty and struggle from which they come and all American students need to understand and appreciate how the United States is as democratic and as true to its ideals as it is today because of African Americans’ ideals and sacrifices.
Black History illuminates the tragedy of discrimination and invisibility as it makes visible the best in humanity.