Black History month should be a time to celebrate the phenomenal contributions of African Americans to the national fabric. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a time of celebration, when the racial divide in the nation seems to be reaching a fever pitch. Empire star Jussie Smollett’s brutal attack was just the latest of many racially charged incidents. As the actor was exiting a Chicago restaurant, two suspects began yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him. Then they attacked him, punching him and pouring an unknown chemical substance over him. The attackers also wrapped a rope around Smollett’s neck before they fled the scene.
Even more outrageous was the racial turmoil that recently occurred at a General Motors plant in Toledo. Liberal use of the N-word, veiled threats and even a noose was reported. Another employee reportedly told his boss, "Back in the day, you would have been buried with a shovel." There was a warning that a black supervisor was going to be followed home and attacked by eight white workers.
An NBC news poll conducted only months ago said a majority of Americans believe that racism remains a major problem in American society and politics. 45 percent of Americans believe race relations in the United States are getting worse and think that too little attention is paid to race and racial issues (41 percent).
And yet, apart from abhorrent racial incidents that reflect remnants of deep-seated prejudice, there is much to celebrate this month. Black Americans are represented in every sector of the nation, pillars of our social fabric, representing our progress as a nation. From entertainment and fashion, to the arts, music and film, to literature and cuisine, Black America has enriched the American social fabric for over a century.
Great American figures like Andrew Young, Maya Angelou, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm and Thurgood Marshall, to name but a few, have recently been joined by extraordinary Americans, not to mention the first Black President, the first lady and American icon, Oprah. Black history has had a pervasive, transformative impact on many elements of mainstream America.
Black Americans have made major contributions in many scientific fields. Contributions in the field of chemistry include the development of synthetic drugs for the treatment of chronic ailments. In the field of physics, Black Americans like a Otis Boykin and Daniel Williams have helped to invent new ways to treat heart disease as well as cancer patients. In the field of medicine, Black Americans have developed treatments for various diseases including leprosy, cancer, and syphilis. Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first black woman to hold the position of United States Surgeon General, is best known for her admirably frank discussion of her views on controversial issues such as legalizing drugs, masturbation and distributing contraception in schools.
But perhaps more than anything, Blacks in America have shaped the American spirit. They have taught us the vital importance of civil rights, a movement that not only shaped the African-American experience, but raised the consciousness of the nation. Black history is a testament to all that is right and all that is wrong with America, to the best and the worst in us.
The events of Black history have moved us to climb the highest mountains so we could give a name and a face to the beautiful American vision that all men (and women!) are created equal. Black America has shown us the way. Were it not for the Black experience, many would not have been moved to make the climb to understand the ways in which we are all the same, and that if we deny one group equality today, it will be our group that is denied tomorrow.
No one presented that truth with more clarity than Frances Watkins Harper, a Black woman committed to equality, who insisted that the definition of “women” shouldn’t be limited to only the educated and the affluent. As the NYT recently featured, Harper, speaking to a large New York audience explained that fates of black and white, rich and poor were “all bound up together.” She argued that race and gender could not be separated, and that “the day-to-day racism she and other black women experienced was in fact a “women’s issue” that suffragists were obligated to confront.”
Fredrick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author and public speaker, and a key advocate for women’s rights, specifically the right of women to vote. He attended the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of women’s rights activists in New York in 1848, and very forcefully in favor of women’s rights exclaimed: “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”
In this way, Black American leaders like Harper and Douglas, served as inspirations, not only to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but to movements for equality for women’s rights and civil rights, paving the way for the rights of many other ethnic minorities. For the 24th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1886, Douglass delivered a rousing address in Washington, D.C., during which he said it best, “… where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
The lifelong struggles for civil rights of great heroes like Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks...less well known were many leaders like the sisters Harriett Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten — daughters of the wealthy Philadelphia sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten and his wife, Charlotte — were central players in the staging of the Fifth National Woman’s Rights Convention in their hometown in 1854. The Boston journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, the wife of the pro-suffrage state legislator George L. Ruffin, and Madam CJ Walker, one of the nation’s first self-made millionaires and philanthropists, should also be counted among the leaders in the suffrage movement. These Black Americans are as vital to our social fabric as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
Michelle Obama’s advice is epic, “You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”
Voting rights for women didn’t always include Black women. Last year, a major thoroughfare in downtown Chicago was named after the newspaper editor and anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells, who also played a celebrated role in the earlier 20th-century suffrage movement. Less well known in the city today is Fannie Barrier Williams, a member of the black elite who had a profound impact on Chicago during more than three decades of civic and political activism. Their struggles—-on behalf of all Americans—-can never be forgotten.
This month and every month, we celebrate them. In spite of all the legislative gains in civil rights throughout history, black Americans continue to endure the devastating effects of racism. Let's celebrate Black history month and the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments and contributions of black Americans in every area of life throughout our history.