Black History Is American History

Two-hundred years ago, an unlikely group of people shattered the presuppositions and assumptions of the simple-minded. American slaves forcibly brought to a new country in chains, restricted to the cotton fields, regularly beaten and harassed and stuck in a state of illiteracy, invented modern gospel and the blues. It was not only a genre of music but an artistic idiom and aesthetic event. Men and women who could not read a sentence written by a child created an enduring vision of humanity and form of expression that continues to uplift, inspire and empower people to this day.

One of the greatest achievements in the history of the species—the invention of modern music and an artistic idiom by uneducated, uncultured slaves—also contains wisdom that sheds light on the beauty and brutality of American history. It is defined by the mixing and mingling, the interplay and interaction of different groups of people—one group that had all the power, and still has most of the power, and other groups that had none or very little.

This achievement is also something almost universally omitted from educational curricula in American schools at all levels. I’ve recently explained it to classes at two Chicago area colleges, and the students had admitted that none of them ever heard it before. I’m not a genius. The American educational system, and larger culture, is just largely ignorant of this subject.

Part of the problem, as well-meaning and intentioned as it may be, is the invention and existence of “Black history month.” The old joke goes: “Of course white people picked February for Black history month. It’s the shortest month of the year.”

What isn’t so funny, however, is categorizing “Black” history as something particularly “Black,” and therefore separate and different from the rest of American history. The process of narrow and foolish categorization encourages schools and the media to adopt a tourist approach to understanding and appreciating the invaluable, inspirational and intensely American contributions to history by Black Americans.

There is the invention of blues and jazz. There is the immeasurable impact on American religious life. The oratorical style that articulated a jeremiad theology forever shaped American Christianity, and continues to represent it around the world. There are individual contributions, including the invention of open heart surgery by a Black doctor named Daniel Hale Williams—a surgery that saved my white father’s life.

Black history is inseparable from American history, because it is the Black freedom movement that saved every white father’s life.

All Americans should think deeply about what America would be without its greatest liberators: Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Fred Shuttlesworth, et. al. America would be a country defined by an apartheid system of oppression, violence and hate. For all our grand illusions about democracy, we forget that democracy in America began a mere 47 years ago with the passage of the voting rights act. The “founding fathers” did not possess a democratic vision focused on honesty and compassion; rather, they created a system of governance under which “all men are created equal.” The only honest part of that promise was the word “men.” Women could not vote nor hold any power, and neither could Black Americans.

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Martin Luther King, and the millions of warriors for justice that he represented so fiercely and eloquently, freed everyone—not only Black Americans, but all Americans—because in the words of Albert Camus, he demonstrated that we could be “neither victims nor executioners.” A Black American does not have to be a victim, and a white American does not have to be an executioner.

American culture is impossible to imagine without gospel, blues, jazz and later inventions by slaves and descendents of slaves. American Christianity is impossible to imagine without the rhetorical mastery and love and labor of justice exercised and symbolized by Black church leaders. American democracy would not exist without the vision, courage and sacrifice of the Black freedom movement.

Reducing such rich history to one month—whether it is the shortest or longest month—is not only stupid, but dangerous. Black history is American history, and it is a story that demands telling every day, all year, every year.

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