In February, Americans of all races, creeds and faiths recognize black history month. As an African-American myself, when I reflect upon the African-American experience, I think of the continuing and not altogether certain journey of an entire people. A people who have survived in this country in spite of heinous injustice, inhumanity and unthinkable brutality.
Traveling through the darkest of times, when “The American Way,” for African-Americans, meant inequality, oppression, abuse, atrocities and worse, one must stop and take in the depth and magnitude of this shameful period. The systematic shattering of the spirit, hopes and dreams of an entire people was legally embraced, religiously justified, morally rationalized, economically engineered and governmentally condoned. This shattering shackled not only those who endured the worst of it, but also conscripted every innocent unborn generation who inherited, and continues to inherit, its devastating legacy. I sometimes reflect on the measure of the men who could perpetrate such a crime. More often though, I ponder the measure of the men and women who endured it.
The history, character and spirit of these ancestors is the foundation in which the African-American capacity to endure and thrive is anchored. Africans who were forcibly brought to America (those who made the harrowing journey without succumbing to starvation, illness, murder or suicide) were not the savages they were portrayed to be. This was an untruth manufactured to disguise the brutal dehumanization and exploitation at the heart of the the captor’s seizure of the captive. These Africans had lives and livelihoods. They had families, friends, and enemies, and a connection to their homeland. They exhibited love, fear, courage, anxiety, happiness, pride and every other human emotion. They were full-fledged members of the human race with a civilization that was evolving, as all civilizations do, at its own God-ordained pace.
It is crucial to remember this history in order to appreciate the depths from which the African-American people have risen, and why. The traits that propelled these people through an evolving civilization back in Africa became the catalyst for a slow but steady progression out of deplorable conditions here in America. The skills they brought with them, and the skills they acquired, together with their intense desires to contribute to society, to better themselves, to bond with family, to worship something greater than themselves, to create a better life for future generations and to live in peace and prosperity all made the African-American journey a story of continuation rather than extinction. We stand on the shoulders of giants. It is through their resolve and tenacity, and the support and encouragement of allies from every walk of life, that the African-American narrative has changed (for the most part) from achievement in spite of “The American Way” to achievement because of it. In other words, “The American Way” has changed for the better because of the impact of the African-American experience upon it.
The distinctly American ideals of hope, tolerance, fairness, dignity, respect, inclusiveness, oneness, pride, optimism and much more have been and continue to deepened as a by-product of a nation coming to terms with the ashes of slavery. If we, as a nation, can continue to cherish and build upon the lessons of the African-American journey, we’ll continue to evolve, improve lives for all Americans and maintain our place as the greatest nation on earth.