With Black History Month upon us, it behooves us as Americans to honestly grapple with our past to better inform our present and help build a more perfect union for our future.
Black history is American history — and vice versa. The notion that Black Americans are some “other” detached from the fabric of American history is morally and empirically wrong. This has been true since the birth of our nation, when Crispus Attucks, a Massachusetts dock worker of African and Native American descent, was the first man killed in the Boston Massacre and thus the first person to give his life for the American Revolution.
Yet as often as Black people have stewarded and sacrificed for this nation, so too have they been historically denied an equal seat at the table of dignity. No matter how ugly these stains on the soul of our society, we must never turn away from them in willful ignorance.
Less than a century ago, when America went to war to help Allied forces defend the world from fascism, Black soldiers bled and died just the same as their fellow Americans, yet segregation of the armed forces deemed them unfit to march alongside or share barracks with other servicemen.
After helping to win World War II, they returned home to pre-Civil Rights Act America — rife with discrimination, racial terror in the Jim Crow South and a limited ability to take advantage of GI and New Deal benefits compared to their white countrymen.
America owes so much to its veterans — especially to those who put their life on the line for a country that treated them as inferior. We owe it to them to ensure the country they were fighting for is one that meaningfully strives to close the gap between our highest ideals — fairness, justice, liberty, decency — and the lived experiences of Black Americans and other marginalized citizens.
That requires acknowledging that racism is not some long-gone ill of the past. Yes, the armed forces and other spaces are no longer legally segregated; slavery has been abolished; the civil rights era brought about sweeping change aimed at making daily life less discriminatory. Nevertheless, our Black brothers and sisters still suffer in ways we can’t ignore.
Black unemployment remains higher than average. The average Black American family household’s net worth is a fraction of their white American counterparts. In many ways, we fail Black families before they begin; the infant mortality rate among Black Americans is more than twice as high compared to white Americans, while the maternal mortality rate is more than three times as high. Police departments tasked with protecting and serving their communities often serve Black and white communities very differently — as painfully evidenced this past year after national unrest erupted in the wake of the police deaths of unarmed Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
These trends heap disproportionate pain on Black communities today. But these cycles of suffering and the callousness with which they’re often dismissed are indelibly tied to our nation’s original sin — residual effects of the brutal dehumanization visited on Black people in this land for centuries. Too often this is glossed over by those who haven’t suffered from the forces of white supremacy, or have historically benefited from it.
Truly confronting and learning this history requires more than just celebrating the abolition of slavery or applauding increased diversity in the highest halls of power. It means acknowledging the historical backdrop to the inequities and injustices still inflicted on Black men, women and children everyday, symptoms of a sickness afflicting our nation’s soul that we have not fully treated. This is not just Black suffering; this is American suffering. We are all tasked with reshaping the systems that allow for it.
It’s also important that, while recognizing the wrongs historically visited on Black Americans and the resultant barriers they still face, we acknowledge the great strides of progress made in the fight on racism, as well as just how much American progress is, in fact, Black progress.
Ours is a history blessed and bolstered by those who forged a better future for our nation even as it gravely mistreated them: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin. These are not just figures of Black excellence — they are towering pillars of American greatness, demonstrating for all the moral courage and determination required to bend the moral arc of our universe more toward justice.
This month and beyond, we echo their call to let freedom ring for all.