Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, a celebration inspired by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, which began as Negro History Week and evolved into a month-long focus on the contributions of Black Americans to the nation. Though some may now view the designation as passé, we still believe Black History Month plays an important role in a nation that has left untold the many achievements of Blacks and our role in transforming the United States into a global power.
In his recent State of the Union Address, the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama, challenged the United States to “win the future.” It is a theme that is consistent with the aspirations of Blacks since the first enslaved Africans arrived on these shores. Our perspective has always been forward-thinking, looking to the future toward a time when structural inequities will no longer taint our opportunity to be full citizens. Our future, though, has always been shaped by the unfinished business of the past. No matter how much we look to the future, we cannot escape our past; the suffering, mistreatment and denial of our humanity that continues to wreak havoc on present conditions.
Looking over the landscape of our communities, the economic disparities we see today are the product of first slavery, and then Jim Crow, followed by decades of de facto discrimination. The brief respite we experienced during Reconstruction and the so-called “Second Reconstruction” during the civil rights era has been overwhelmed by the resilience of capitalism to suppress our ambitions and opportunity. Today we are a community of high achievers, despite the many obstacles that have been placed in our path, and impoverished citizens caught in poverty’s stranglehold. We face the dire predictions that the current generation of middle class Black children may not do as well as their parents. If our most privileged young people face such a high hurdle, how will the others fare?
This month we do not intend to rehash historical accounts already told. We will devote most of the month focused on the status of Black Americans today in the context of historical struggles. This is one of the most significant Black History Month celebrations in some time since it coincides with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. There can be no better backdrop to this month than a war that was fought principally over the question of the enslavement and future of Blacks in the United States. The anniversary truly puts into perspective the incredibly fast ascension of Black Americans when you consider that some of us can cite great grandparents who fought in the Civil War and had family members who were slaves.
Our history is very much intertwined with our past and this Black History Month we plan to take a look at several issues that are part of a “hangover” effect from our treatment in the past, but opportunities to “win the future” as the President urged in his speech.