Black History Month: Seeing America Clearly

It is one thing for me, a white person, to write about Black History, but I do so without having the personal experience of growing up Black, not having the true context of what it meant to grow up and live in a world where you were often mistreated and abused, where opportunities afforded to others did not apply to you simply because of the colour of your skin.  So, when I came upon one writer’s personal essay, I was deeply moved, as I believe you will be.  The following essay was published Sunday in the New York Times by Esau McCaulley, an author and a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Black History Month Is About Seeing America Clearly

A woman who was born into enslavement in Alabama.Credit…Jack Delano/Getty Images

Feb. 20, 2022

By Esau McCaulley

Contributing Opinion Writer

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who did the kinds of jobs featured at career fairs or depicted on television shows. I had never met a Black doctor, lawyer, professor or scientist. Where does a young Black man go when looking for hope? My teachers, overworked as they were, pointed me toward Black luminaries from the past.

The first Black History Month project I recall was about George Washington Carver. I was enthralled with the idea that the early 20th-century agricultural scientist, born into slavery, came up with hundreds of uses for peanuts. By the time Black History Month rolled into full swing, my ode to the master of peanuts sat alongside posters lauding the accomplishments of such stalwarts as Martin Luther King Jr. (he always inspired multiple posters), Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Sojourner Truth.

Black history, in this frame, is the story of exemplars. We learn about the first Black surgeon, Supreme Court justice or astronaut. This version of Black history endeavors to show Black capability and challenge stereotypes. The lesson is clear: If this Black person from history overcame racism, so could we. With enough grit, determination and patience, we too could go to space or invent hundreds of uses for a common crop.

These exemplars were helpful. But the exercise also left me with a feeling that there was a long list of things Black people had never done, and my job was to find one of those things and check it off the list. Then we could stand before the world and say: We have done all the things. Can we have justice now?

This exemplars-based approach to Black history also produced an unintentional consequence. It gave those outside our community license to use Black accomplishment against us. They told us that we needed more exceptional Black people, instead of questioning a society that required such greatness of us. Our very victories were transfigured into condemnations of those still languishing.

I was exposed to a second form of Black History Month when I got older: Black history as corrective. In this version, we learned about Black achievement that had been erased from the historical record. It points us to the African American female mathematicians involved in the space race, as recounted fictionally in the film “Hidden Figures” or the Tuskegee Airmen, whose contributions during World War II were long underappreciated. This is important. One reason that we are still chasing “firsts” is because too many of our accomplishments have been stolen from us. But the problem is that this way of teaching history is about amending a story, instead of telling a more truthful one.

It was not until I got to college that I began to see African American history for what it truly is. It is not a series of heroics or forgotten contributions. It is a different telling of the American story altogether.

What happens when we do not begin with the Mayflower but the slave ship, and tell American history from that perspective? The explicit aim of The Times’s 1619 Project was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” This powerful, challenging idea led to a still-raging debate about racism in America that is playing out in school boards and local elections all over the country, with certain books and ideas being ruled out of bounds.

Americans have not been taught enough about anti-Black racism in our past and present. This, to my mind, is beyond dispute. We are poorer as a nation for these omissions. It is also true that scholars of good will can disagree when making sense of the lives of figures long dead. People are complex, and getting at the complexity is no small thing. Education should be a place where such matters are debated openly.

But endless discussions about the intent of the founding fathers miss a fundamental point. History is not merely the study of intent; it encompasses effect. Whether or not every founding father intended to create a government that sanctioned slavocracy, and later Jim Crow, those were the outcomes. To limit the question to the intent at the expense of the experience of the enslaved and their descendants is to prioritize white American intentions or ideals over Black bodies, a mistake our Republic has made over and over.

What cannot be doubted is that for African peoples brought to this land against our will, slavery and anti-Black racism are defining characteristics of our American experience. This is why Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech draws upon the Declaration of Independence in its opening movement. He highlighted the fact that this declaration had little purchase in the lives of Black folks:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

Black history, then, should be a challenge to our Republic and its core narrative. Instead of quibbling with this detail or that, it must raise a fundamental question about the quality of life Black people have been allowed to experience. If we are indeed a part of this nation, then our lives and experiences have a claim on our national narrative. African American history forces us to view the Black experience of injustice not as the interruption of or caveat to an otherwise grand narrative, but as a compelling story in its own right.

Would this leave us with only a tale of woe? No. There is a dark beauty to the American story. The beauty is not in our innocence. We have been party to too much death and terror for that. African American history requires the recasting of our central figures, where those on the sidelines are brought to the forefront. The enslaved must be allowed to unbend their backs and step into the light and claim the glory due to them. Washington and Lincoln must give way to Truth and Douglass as American marvels.

What makes America a wonder is that this is the land upon which my ancestors, despite the odds, fought for and often made a life for themselves. We are great because this land housed the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and Maya Angelou, the advocacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, the urgency of Nina Simone’s music, and the faith-inspired demand for change in Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons.

This way of telling the story allows us to speak of American ideals even if the norm is failure rather than accomplishment. It allows our history to chronicle progress without diminishing the suffering necessary to bring it about. This means, too, that to tell the American story well the contributions of us Black folks cannot be limited to February.

Black history offers America a chance to see itself both as what we have failed to become and as we wish ourselves to be. It is not to inspire hate for one race or to foment division. America seeing itself clearly is the first step toward owning and then learning from its mistakes. The second step is the long journey to become that which we hope to be: a more perfect — and just — union.

21 thoughts on “Black History Month: Seeing America Clearly

  1. There is nothing so degrading and corrosive to a nation’s well-being and development as to single out one part of that nation’s people as being lesser folk.
    Once more let us remember how well that ethos worked out for Germany and Japan in 1945.
    And look what damage it might do to the USA, yet.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Presuming, or just assuming, that this is may be the last post for your contributions to Black History Month…Esau McCaulley’s column is the perfect ending! Ella Baker (1903 – 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist beginning in the 1930’s and continuing for five decades. She was an unknown person to many and remains so even today. In Dec. of 1969 during an address given in Georgia, Baker said : “…in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we’ve been, but we must understand where we’ve been.” She was speaking of African-American women but I think that the same holds true for all people. Barbara Ransby is the author of an excellent biography : “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement”. WHAK!! Thank-you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, I’m hoping to have a couple more Black History Month posts yet, and may have some even after the end of the month … just depends on my motivation! Bro has been down for the past week or two, so I haven’t been re-blogging his, but may do so when he gets back into the saddle.

      I am glad you enjoyed Mr. McCaulley’s words … they just seemed so perfect to me. I knew as I read your comment that the name “Ella Baker” rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite remember why, so I checked my archives and it turns out she was mentioned in the first sentence in President Biden’s acceptance speech in August 2020 when he won the Democratic nomination! He said, “Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way. Give people light. Those are words for our time.” I will definitely check out the book by Barbara Ransby! Thanks! WHAK!!!


      • Assuming – present participle of assume. To “Ass-U-Me” oft leads one astray and I shall not get into the history of the frequently repeated quote, in various forms, of unknown original origin. It is far better to : “Assume nothing; Question everything; Verify all.” – Barry Ritholtz. As has been said by others, and if not previously said by myself, Black History need not nor should not be limited to one month…there is too much to learn, to understand and to appreciate by ALL Americans. WHAK!! Thank-you!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m seriously thinking about dedicating at least one post per month to Black History going forward. Not sure yet, but it’s a thought that’s tumbling around in the space inside my head! WHAK!!!


  3. Pingback: BLACK HISTORY MONTH: SEEING AMERICA CLEARLY. | | Ramblings of an Occupy Liberal

  4. A very well-written and powerful statement that needs to be read, “and understood,” by “every American.” But that won’t happen in this current climate. Like everything else, Whites get the bulk of the attention (WHITE HISTORY ENCOMPASSES 12 MONTHS A YEAR, WHILE BLACK HISTORY GETS ONE MONTH A YEAR, AND THE SHORTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR AT THAT!) Meanwhile, Red, Yellow, and Brown Americans get NO MONTHS AT ALL. The proposition that all men are created equal is a farce, and will continue to be as long as white people demand their place as the superior race in this world, not just in Europe and North America where the populations presently present themselves as mostly white, with spatterings of other colours interspersed within the white blanket, but even in places where other blankets have barely any white spots. The dominant culture in the world is white–everyone else is forced to try to live up to white standards, white economies, and even white politics. Except for a few sports, it is baseball, American, Canadian, or Australian FOOTBALL, hockey and basketball that are considered the most important sports in the world. As stupid as it sounds, we could take a lesson from the World Wrestling Experience, where all races are represented, and anyone can become champions, not just whites (although even there, there are more white champions than any other colour!)
    Overall, White is Right, and other-coloured peoples are forced to compete on White playing fields. Because other playing fields are bush league, at best.

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  5. Jill, I love this statement and the paragraph is begins. “But endless discussions about the intent of the founding fathers miss a fundamental point. History is not merely the study of intent; it encompasses effect.” Historian Jon Meacham’s book “Soul of America” speaks to when our country leaders had to address the effect of disenfranchisement on others. These were times we righted (or tried to right) wrongs. Keith

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    • Indeed, he makes several good points and he is spot on. Like you, I find Meacham’s “Soul of America” to rank #1 in honest history of our nation. Being somewhat engrossed by the Civil Rights movement these days, I just discovered that Meacham also wrote “Voices in our Blood” about that period, which I plan to read next! Yes, there were times we tried to right our past wrongs, even times we succeeded to one extent or another, but these days it seems more like we are trying to repeat the wrongs of the past. I hope … so hope … that we stop this madness before many more are hurt … or killed.


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