Black History Month – First Installment 2019
Hello everyone. This is John. As many of you know I teach history and I want take this chance to speak to you all on this first day of Black History Month.
Last year, I raised the question of why we even have Black History month. In a perfect world of course there would be no need to set a month aside to focus on the history of one particular group of Americans. But of course the world is not perfect and the challenge of race and identity have been an issue since the first Europeans and Africans arrived at these shores at just about the same time. Race and identity have been a hugely significant factor that has determined what kinds of lives all Americans have been able to lead. So Black History Month gives us a chance to confront the notion of race and identify head on. Our history has determined who we are as a society and it benefits all of us to make sure we consider it carefully from all sides.
Last year, I identified some particular reasons why – at least for a month – Black History, African American History – makes sense to pay some attention to. With just a few updates, here is what I said.
First: Black history is American History – indeed the full sweep of American History. African Americans were here at the creation – providing labor and even owning land – in the English colonies of North America within decades of their founding. Africans were here before the Pilgrims found their way to Plymouth Rock. For the next 400 years African Americans and the question of race and identity raised by their presence were central to America’s economic, social and political development.
Second: Black history is inspiring – it is tragic, it is dramatic, it is full of joy and hope. It is the story of the underdog, It is history from the bottom up. To put it simply these are great stories.
Finally, Black History Month is not make white people feel uncomfortable and guilty month. It is a time to reflect on how broad the questions of race and identity are. It is a time to realize how many of our ancestors shared a common struggle for equality and opportunity. Consider this: for much of the 19th Century, white people were not considered by many Americans to be a single race. Influential writers such a Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted the idea of a superior “Saxon” race with mythical Germanic origins that came over directly from England. These notions seem absurd to us now, but 100 years later the same racial concepts were promoted by the Nazis and led to the deaths of millions in Europe during World War II. Irish Americans who were arriving in huge numbers in the mid-18002 were not Saxons but Celts and were therefore an inferior race. They were even used in the South when slavery was still legal for jobs that were considered too dangerous to risk the lives of valuable slaves. Early in the 20th Century, laws were passed to limit immigration because the Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans coming into the country at that time were also considered to be members of inferior races. Even right now there is a push to limit legal immigration that makes use of arguments that are all too familiar.
So from time to time over this month I will come on during the morning announcements and tell some stories. Next week I’m going to have to start with a great one. Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday was just yesterday and his story is one of such courage and achievement that it should make us all proud to be Americans. I hope you’ll listen, enjoy and reflect.