What is called “Black History” in the United States of America is American history. In categorizing and cataloging “Black History” as such, and relegating it not only to one month of the year, February, but also the shortest month of the year, it in effect diminishes its importance, as if it is a sub-branch of American history. In fact, there is no America as we know it without Black people. Black people in the USA, that is, descendants of Africans, were in the U.S. at its very founding, and before, of course (when you hear second generation Europeans telling Black Americans to “go back to Africa,” you get a sense of white Americans’ disconnect from what American history is, and this is so because of how American history has been taught). Black Americans fought in every major war America has waged, including the Revolutionary War.
Black History in America doesn’t begin with the Revolutionary War. Black history begins way before that; and Black history is not simply the history of slavery, from 1619 to 1865, as some people would have it. Black history is a history of resistance, resilience, and triumph (making a way out of no way). It is a history that continues to force America to at least attempt to live up to her ideals. In fact, the treatment of Black people in America should be the moral yardstick by which America is judged. Perhaps this is why historians have narrated American history from the subjective lens of white people, for to do otherwise puts everything white Americans hold dear about American history into question.
White Americans – in fact, all Americans – should celebrate Black history, in all its glory, because it is American history, a story of America, a story of overcoming. It is also a history of creativity and invention – inventions created by Black Americans were often trademarked by White Americans. W.E.B. DuBois pretty much summed up Black Americans’ contributions to America, and the world. He mentioned three broad categories of contributions, as gifts: the gift of sweat and brawn (the very foundation of America’s economic system was built on the backs of Black people); the gift of music and song (from Ragtime to Rock and Roll to Rap); and the gift of the Spirit (the moral and religious Black leaders forcing America to look at herself in the mirror, not simply as what she was, but what she could become, and looking to show America the Way).
Black people have actually shown America the Way. Almost every immigrant has had a better experience in America because not only did Black people bear the whips and scorns of various oppressive American systems, but they also paved the way to make it easier for immigrants to believe in and pursue the American Dream. While the American dream has often been delayed for Black people, often turning into the American Nightmare, it is still an American ideal, an ideal we export to the world.
The ideal of America exists in large part because of Black people and their spirit.
The spirit of Black people in America has been indomitable. Through slavery and segregation and hyperincarceration, Black people have weathered various storms and not only survived, but also triumphed.
Black history has lived in the shadows of American history because – this is where American historians are not objective – it shows the other side of America, her ugliness, personified in institutional and systemic racism, and her recalcitrance in the face of the country’s current racial reckoning. In short, American history has been narrated as a tale of white male heroes, leaving out not only the various villains, but also the other heroes, white women, and people of color. How else can we understand the celebration of the treasonous Confederacy and Confederate iconography more than 150 years after the Civil War and the Confederacy’s defeat?
America, take a good look in the mirror, not the fun house mirror that has become the distorted lens out of which white Americans see America. Try looking at America through the lens of the indigenous people. Try looking at America through the lens of Black Americans. Try looking at America through the lens of recent immigrants, especially from South of the U.S. border. If you don’t like what you see – well, it was made in America.