What white Americans learn in school about Black History could be summed up here:
“Europeans imported slave labor to America. The Founding Fathers ended the slave trade through the Constitution in 1787. Abraham Lincoln freed slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson ended segregation by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
There is a problem with this Black History. Black History taught with the slow-and-inevitable-march-of-freedom narrative jars with the anger and activism by contemporary racial justice advocates. Therefore, the liberating messages of movements like Black Lives Matter are misrepresented as archaic or cowardly.
If white Americans really want to understand the racial justice movement, Black History Month presents the perfect opportunity to humbly approach a racial identity other than their own. Black History captures the most truly American principles of fighting for freedom against those who would deprive us of it.
Great empires in West Africa existed for centuries before the transatlantic slave trade subjugated and killed millions of black Africans for European colonialism. The cash crop economy instituted mass racial slavery in the New World. A legal and moral system sprang up among colonizers to justify slavery, primarily based on religion.
Despite this military, economic and cultural genocide of West Africans, the old society clung to life. Syncretic religions preserved elements of past culture. Given the breath of freedom, intellects like Phillis Wheatley poured their power out for the world. Leaders like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Nat Turner fought slavery with the sword while in secret slaves self-educated and taught fellow slaves.
The freedom struggle which continued after slavery claimed more lives. Reconstruction shook Southern society and birthed white-power vigilantes like the KKK. Yet Freedmen entered education, politics and business, embracing the liberties for which they fought. Many owned property, but many others labored in peonage. When the Populists preached racial solidarity and liberation from peonage, reactionary bloodshed such as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 destroyed the zenith of black economic and political power.
From 1890-1970, the renewed oppression of Jim Crow could not defeat black consciousness. W.E.B. DuBois described internalized oppression, a “veil” that suffocated African-Americans under the vise grips of forced sterilization, lynching, sexual exploitation, redlining, ghettoization, voter suppression, and the codification of these oppressions into American institutions such as banks, civic associations and governments. Against violence and scorn, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement continued the struggle for freedom.
The latest oppressions from 1970 onward, in the coded language of crime and drugs, have made mass incarceration and the structural abandonment of the urban poor (expressed often in policing) the new frontiers of the freedom struggle. Would-be white allies of the freedom struggle would do well to know its heritage, and respect its goals.
Black History is American History. Read these words of the Declaration of Independence, and see the same desire of liberty and justice burning in the hearts of freedom fighters through the ages:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.