Reflections on Black History Month

There is no American history without black history. Black history month is necessary because this truth is often ignored.

Being reminded of various aspects of black history throughout the month caused me to reflect on how perfectly the history of black Americans exemplifies many of our most important American values.

In America we value independence, hard work, and self-determination; We can’t stand it when others try to tell us who we are and what our limits are. There’s no better example of these values in action than the fight black Americans have continuously waged, generation after generation, for equal rights, opportunities, and respect.

Though Americans fought and won the rights embodied in our Declaration of Independence for white men long ago, the centuries-long fight to extend these God-given rights to black Americans remains a constant reminder of what we value and why it’s worth fighting for.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As a country, we are proud of our independent spirit and how hard we fought to create a system which extended these rights to white men. It is equally if not more impressive how hard black Americans have fought to gain these valuable rights in the face of white supremacy and a government that did not accept them as fully human.

Even after centuries of oppression, gaslighting, and white supremacy putting them in well-defined boxes, black Americans have always been able to look inwardly, remember their inherent human value, and define themselves. I can’t think of anything that better embodies the American spirit and drive for independence and self-determination.

Black history has always been a march of two steps forward, one step back. Build, be torn down, build again, be torn down again, yet never ceasing to make progress, even when the being torn down phase is blamed incorrectly on one’s own character.

What makes it an even crueler jest, and a gaslighting of an entire group of humans is that even when black Americans, with no assistance, worked hard and were able to create the miracle of wealth from nothing, it was not tolerated. White supremacy in America has historically essentially said you should be pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps while at the same time robbing black people of their hard-earned boots, with the Tulsa massacre being one such stark example.

1921, Tulsa had the wealthiest black neighborhood in the country. On Sundays, women wore satin dresses and diamonds, while men wore silk shirts and gold chains. In Greenwood, writes historian James S. Hirsch,“Teachers lived in brick homes furnished with Louis XIV dining room sets, fine china, and Steinway pianos.”

They called it Black Wall Street.

“They had done everything that they were supposed to do in terms of the American dream,” says Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. “You work hard, you save your money, you go to school, you buy property. And this is what they had done under horrific conditions.”

Greenwood was strictly segregated from the rest of the city, but still it flourished. It was home to black lawyers, business owners, and doctors — including Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was considered the most skilled black surgeon in America and had a net worth of $100,000.

Dr. Jackson was killed on the night of May 31st, 1921, along with hundreds of black Tulsans. Thirty-five blocks of Greenwood were razed that night. 1,256 homes and 191 businesses were destroyed. 10,000 black people were left homeless.

By morning, Black Wall Street had been reduced to rubble.

“Black success was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy,” writes Hirsch, “so taking their possessions not only stripped Blacks of their material status, but also tipped the social scales back to their proper alignment.” In Tulsa today, as elsewhere, that alignment remains strikingly unequal.

This is still an issue we see today. The complaint many white Americans have about NFL players like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem is that they are wealthy while many white Americans struggle economically. Black Americans who do rise to the top of the economic ladder should be so grateful to be allowed the wealth they’ve historically been banned from accumulating (the Tulsa massacre was within the past 100 years) that they should keep their mouths shut about any injustices they see.

Without examining this aspect of American history, it’s difficult to see how badly white supremacy hurts our nation as a whole.

Take Tulsa for example, what would’ve happened had Greenwood been allowed to flourish to this day? Tulsa would be a much wealthier city overall. Eventually, as segregation was worn down, even jobs for white residents would’ve been created from such an economic boom.

The destruction of the city’s wealth did not enrich any white residents except possibly white-owned businesses who wouldn’t have wanted to compete with black-owned businesses.

Throughout American history, the implicit logic given by wealthy white Americans to impoverished white Americans, especially in the South, was basically, don’t complain about your lot in life. Just be thankful you’re white. It taps into the deeply human propensity for comparison and how we often care more about where we sit relative to others than where we sit in absolute terms.

So when white people who are struggling economically see successful black Americans, it can make them feel like they have nothing. Like their lot in life just dropped significantly even if it didn’t change at all. This causes them to focus on destroying American wealth rather than creating it.

You can’t fight to keep large segments of America in poverty while concurrently raising your own economic station.

A rising tide lifts all boats. A falling tide lowers them.

You can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you spend all your energy trying to prevent others from acquiring boots.

Instead, white Americans should study and learn from black history. It’s amazing that time and time again black Americans continue to work from nothing and rebuild, no matter the obstacles.

Trying to help develop safe, inclusive AI by bringing 21st century tech to social science. Nerd for: IR, development/infrastructure and intersectional feminism.

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