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The Gift of Black History

Mamie Till

Two weeks ago we began our month-long celebration of Black History Month. This is one of my favorite times of the year because of the rich history that this month invites us to reflect upon. Black history, or African-American history, is the one area of history that I have always been attracted. Even at a young age, I was acutely aware of a tension woven deep into the fabric of the American democratic experiment; that black people had accomplished so much that was impressive, yet they had been harshly cast into the shadows of American life.

Those shadows consist of 246 years of slavery (1619-1865) and roughly 90 years of Jim Crow laws (1877-1968). If you combine the two, this means that, for approximately 350 years, institutionalized oppression of black people has been the norm in this country. We have made strides in the last 50 years but we still have much work to do.

This is one of the reasons Black History Month is so important. Black history is our country’s shared history. To downplay the fact that there have been oppressive policies toward a group of people for so long in this country is to downplay our history and its effect on the present. To confront this history does not mean we have to antagonize or vilify, or even hate, certain groups of people. It means that we begin to understand and appreciate the challenges black people have faced, and how they were able to respond as victors when unjust social and legal systems made them victims.

Robert Johnson, 1930s blues legend.

There are so many resilient responses to celebrate in Black History month. One such response is the first modern American art form: spirituals. These spirituals led to blues, jazz, gospel, soul, funk, hip-hop, and R&B. This music has been invaluable in inviting white Americans to appreciate black culture and indispensable in affirming the humanity of an oppressed people.

Beyond music, the tradition of the African-American Christian experience is one of the best gifts given to us from Black history. In my opinion, some of the greatest Americans to ever live have been a product of this tradition that was born in the cold, bleak night of America. This tradition has produced the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Mamie Till. The tradition continues in the works of William Barber II, Michael Eric Dyson, and Tavis Smiley. There are countless others that I am no doubt missing but even in these few we can see, through the study of Black history, the way they nurtured a tradition of excellence, decency, and grace in the face of white supremacy’s triple legacies of terror, humiliation, and oppression.

Reverend William Barber II

This tradition cannot be overlooked or underestimated in its role in sustaining a people for these past few hundred years. What has been passed down are examples of a people at their best and is an example of the potential for any people at their best. So, even though we celebrate this month as Black History, because it is a shared history there is so much at stake for all Americans as we struggle to keep alive this very fragile democratic experiment. What is at stake is a continuation of traditions of love, hope, decency, courage, creativity, resilience, originality, humor, and respect instead of traditions of strife, bitterness, cynicism, revenge, hate, staleness, discord and despair. These positive traditions are worth remembering and celebrating, because they counteract the negative values that are far too prevalent in our world today. We need to remember the gifts of those at their best even when society is at its worst.

– Brandon Grunden, 7th Grade Teacher and Academic K-12 Instruction Technology  Coordinator  

Keep an eye out for the next blog post of our celebration of Black History Month!

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