AFRICANGLOBE – Every year in February, the nation celebrates Black-American History month, but when I think about the resilience of Black people in this country over the centuries, I feel compelled to celebrate that history 12 months a year. February only gives me a more concentrated chance to think deeply and appreciatively about the bridge that brought African Americans to this time and place.
In this age of Twitter, Instagram, smartphones, Skype and Facebook, it is easy to plow ahead without much reflection. Yet I am determined to still my mind and spirit and journey back through literature, documentary films and research of the past and grow in my appreciation of that mighty ancestral bridge that is responsible for my very existence.
While African Americans have continued to make social, economic and educational gains, we should not be unjustifiably proud nor smug, for there is such a long way yet to go. Lest we forget, none of these advances just happened. They are the result of great sacrifice and determination by past generations who, no doubt, would be grateful to know that their struggles were not in vain and that they are remembered.
The sojourn of Black Americans has filled volumes from our beginnings in the New World to present-day America. Yet I am both amazed and appalled at how little the average American knows about the history of Black people in this country. And I challenge every citizen to reject any attempt by anyone or any institution to tell the story of America and leave out the major role that Black Americans have played in the development, building and culture of the nation.
Allow me to whet your appetite:
Did you know that in the Commonwealth of Kentucky formerly enslaved Black Americans were not permitted to marry until February 1867?
Their commitment to one another was simply a connection of two hearts and an occasional jumping of a broom. What was most touching was to look at the records and find that, when allowed by law, hundreds of these men and women, including my great-grandparents, made their way to the courthouse to legalize their unions. These couples had lived together for as long as 30, 40, 50 or more years and, when given the opportunity, they chose to validate and certify those relationships.
Did you know that even after the Civil War, thousands of African Americans remained enslaved well into the 20th century?
Understand that many of these African Americans lived in total isolation on plantations where they received little news to no news of what was going on in the outside world. They were kept there by trickery, force and terror. Preposterous, you think? Not really. Remember the Japanese soldier who hid in the jungle for 29 years after World War II ended?
Did you know that until World War II, Black Americans were only allowed jobs that paid below subsistence wages?
The war enabled thousands to escape share-cropping plantations and kitchens of white America and go to work in factories to produce the machines and weapons needed for war.
Did you know that the small number of Black Americans who attained higher education was still relegated to jobs far beneath their qualifications?
Why? There were no hiring discrimination laws and few businesses existed that would hire these black Americans. In fact, many newspapers carried want ads that stated — “Negroes and Jews need not apply.”
Did you know that the great migration of Black Americans out of the South was spawned out of necessity?
These courageous men and women, often with their children in tow, took to the rails and buses seeking opportunities but most of all to escape the constant threat of being degraded or even lynched. You may be surprised to know that this migration continued through the 1970s. For a number of reasons, the pattern has reversed as thousands of blacks are returning to the South where new opportunities have opened up.
No doubt there is a lot that the average American does not know about the history of African Americans in this country. Much of that history contains stories of strength, ingenuity, interdependence and the ability to have fun even in the midst of oppression.
Sadly, the prevailing attitude of those who discount history is that what happened in the past no longer matters today. But in truth, what happened yesteryear has indeed shaped current attitudes and also determined where we are today.
As a daughter of those who had doors slammed in their faces and endured unimaginable pain and suffering, yet found some degree of satisfaction in life, I am obligated to learn their story and to tell it to succeeding generations.
This granddaughter of those enslaved in South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Kentucky continues to seek and search for the truth and to use the past to build a better, stronger more tolerant nation.
And so, I pause once again to acknowledge and thank those incredible human beings who maintained, sustained and survived to bring me to this point.
Forget about the past? Never. To forget is to risk having more laws rescinded and the return of terrorism against black people in this country. Some of that terrorism still exists when young black boys are automatically suspect just by the color of their skin. Insults abound when I am followed in a store and watched more closely than the woman in the next aisle who is busy stuffing merchandise into her large bag. It continues when
one assumes that surely I am not qualified for the job I do.
Are things better? You bet. I would not want to trade today’s world for the world I inherited. Yet, my journey pales in comparison to that of my parents. It was their perseverance and restraint that enabled my generation to launch the Civil Rights Movement that changed the social order in America.
When I look at the big picture, I stand in awe of those ancestors and am committed to celebrating their determined spirits. Those ancestors were the bridges with mighty pillars that held us up, reached back, gently pulled, pushed and encouraged those coming after them to take giant steps.
By: Emma McElvaney Talbott