This week, I’m delivering the keynote address at a Black History Celebration in New Jersey. As I researched notable African-American figures from the history of the Garden State, it occurred to me that Black History and American History don’t necessarily have to be separate subjects. Allow me to explain:
No American History without Black Americans
When examining American history in this context, one thing is clear: This great nation I love so dearly would not exist as we know it today without the contributions of black Americans.
For starters, there are numerous inventions and discoveries we use today that owe their genesis to African-American inventors and scientists. Just to name a few, there’s the gas mask (Garrett Morgan), the traffic light (also Garrett Morgan), the carbon light bulb filament that allowed Edison’s light bulb to burn longer (Lewis Latimer), and the pacemaker (Otis Boykin).
In addition to creative discoveries that enable modern life as we know it, there’s an additional substantive contribution made by my ancestors that doesn’t get discussed too much: Wealth.
The economic viability of the early United States was in no small part due to slave labor. This is apparent when we consider the substantial role that slave labor played in sustaining settlements in the new world. Slaves were instrumental in creating the Agricultural economies of the colonies, not just as laborers but as subject matter experts whose knowledge of agriculture allowed plantations to benefit from increased production and efficiency. This proved to be the foundation for further economic expansion.
Once these foundations were laid, the next phase of expansion could begin, and it did so in earnest. By the year 1860, plantations from the Southeastern United States supplied 75% of cotton in the world. Think about that. Seventy-five percent! We know the rest of the story – not just cotton, but tobacco, sugar cane, and other exports helped finance American expansion and preeminence through the 19th century and beyond.
No Black History without America
This is a sore point for some to discuss, but it is important to remember that Black History as we know it can only exist within the larger context of American History.
That thought summarizes a strange duality that exists only in the minds of African-Americans. On one hand, like any other natural-born American, I am so proud, blessed, and lucky to be born here. On the other hand, there is a deeply bred sense of pain felt throughout our community when we reflect on the gloom of our past.
The story of my ancestry would not be what it is without that gloomy past, yet it is this very past that inspires my actions and gives my life a sense of purpose and meaning. It is the sacrifices of my ancestors – their hopelessness and despair, the marring of their bodies and crushing of their souls – that spurs on my ambition.
I think about the education they were starved of, the opportunities they never had, and the freedom they craved. Though their story is bleak, it should motivate all of their descendants today.
I owe it to them to take full advantage of the resources at my disposal. What would they think of me if I didn’t? I have no right to be complacent. I must prove myself worthy of their sacrifice. It is the only fitting tribute.
To be frank, the exploitation of our ancestors affects us still in ways that many of us struggle to fully comprehend, but as we wrestle with these issues, we ought to remember this:
Even in our darkest hour, we have so much to be proud of. As slaves, we laid the foundation of this nation with blood, sweat, and tears. As a free people, we’ve made various aspects of modern life possible.
Black History is American History
It is clear from this discussion that these two histories are inseparable. From studying Black History we understand American History, and from studying American History we see that Black Americans have made the nation we enjoy today possible in more ways than one.
Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not belittling the contributions of other ethnicities to American progress. To be clear, I could have easily written an article arguing that Hispanic-American, Asian-American, Caucasian-American, or (especially) Native American history is American History.
This is what I love about our nation – you can insert whatever ethnic description you want into that sentence, and more likely than not, there are still valuable contributions that have been made by that group of people.
As Black History month draws to a close, it is fitting and appropriate to reflect on the journey of African-Americans and our numerous contributions to the great American fabric.
It also behooves all Americans to remember the contributions of a whole patchwork of ethnicities that make our nation of immigrants such a special place. More than any other nation, we truly are the melting pot of the world.
This marvelous shared history of ours is a beautiful thing.