If George Santayana is right about people who are ignorant of history, Americans are doomed to repeat a lot of mistakes. Let's face it, we don't like history. And, every year another survey reminds us of how little of it sticks in the brains of our youth. This doesn't bode well for those of us who regard teaching and learning black history to be morally important for everyone. (If slavery is America's 'second original sin', and conquering Native American peoples was the first, then all Americans who believe in justice have an obligation to understand and eradicate the vestiges of these transgressions.)

Fortunately, in 1926 February was designated Black History Month at the agitation of Chicago-educated African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson's achievement has provided us with an annual opportunity to pay attention to African-American contributions to American society and culture.

Despite this, I have come to feel that America substitutes (mistakes?) its occasional commercial tributes to heroes and heroines for the kind of radical education that can transform people into moral agents. I also think that ordinary Americans (as opposed to those who subsist on the academy's thin air), need a more user-friendly "frame" for thinking about this vast and intimidating subject. I offer a tentative version of such an outline here.

Black history can be conceived as an epic story in three acts: Stability, Struggle, and Striving.


Part one of this epic unfolds amidst the verdant and vast lands of Africa. It was a continent blessed with extraordinary natural resources. Use your imagination and you can almost catch the aroma of coconut and banana, pineapple and pomegranates. The villages of central West Africa were highly organized and stable, and the people self-determined, and proud. Historians like John Hope Franklin remind us that the village empires of Africa were smelting iron for tools and weapons while Asia and Europe lived in the stone age.

Thanks to their stability and social organization, villages expanded and prospered and grew into massive empires during the medieval period of the West. The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay gave rise to the export and trade of African agricultural and manufactured products throughout the Mediterranean world, Middle East, and Asia. Monarchs throughout the world proudly displayed gold rings and exotic animal skins from the Gold Coast.

With the dawn of the 16th century, Portugal, Holland and Spain rapidly expanded the trade of African men and women. The African chiefs and traders who conspired in this awful scheme became parties to one of the most horrific chapters in the world history of slavery. Nor could they have foreseen how the entire continent of Africa would be divided among seven European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) at an 1884 conference in Berlin. This development ended the era of self-determination amidst social stability and the opening of a new chapter.


Slavery in what would become the United States began in 1619, when the first 20 Africans arrived at Jamestown. At that time, they were indentured servants who worked for seven years and were then permitted to go free, a practice known as "manumission." This practice led to the growth of a free black population in the colonies. Manumission continued for four decades until Virginia and Maryland passed laws making slavery a lifelong, permanent status. No longer would baptism and conversion enable freedom and enfranchisement.

During these years, blacks initiated a patient struggle to reclaim self-determination. With the support of sympathetic whites and Indians, black people began to chip away at the moral and economic foundations of slavery. Slaves escaped, revolted, and organized to agitate for change. African people in America lived each day with the haunting uncertainty that their lives might be permanently changed in the blink of an eye. Husbands and sons could be lynched, mothers and daughters raped, children sold to another owner, and brutality visited upon anyone with the audacity to insist upon humane treatment.

But, through it all, classics were born. Songs developed to help people endure endless hours of monotonous, backbreaking work soon evolved into something unexpected: They began to absorb and express the inner lives of African slaves. Their rage and resentment as well as their faith and hope fused into the classics we know as Negro spirituals.

Meanwhile, independent black churches were founded; black people refused to endure the humiliations of worshiping in the rear pews or in balconies of the master's church and instead started their own. In 1773, the First African Baptist Church was established in South Carolina. Later, that congregation moved to Savannah and, today is regarded as the oldest continuous black congregation in America. In the 1780s, African Methodist Episcopal churches followed in Philadelphia and New York.

In 1855 there were only two colleges devoted to the higher education of blacks--Wilberforce and Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. A hundred years later, there were over 100 schools. These few institutions prepared over 40 percent of blacks with undergraduate degrees. And these graduates became the soldiers of the civil rights struggle.

We must also mention the scientific and agricultural genius of George Washington Carver, who was born a slave and went on to teach at Tuskegee Institute. He persuaded farmers to end their reliance on cotton, which depleted the land, and urged them to switch to nutrient rich, soil-renewing crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes. Carver then developed hundreds of money making by-products from these crops.

Madame C.J. Walker became the nation's first black female millionaire manufacturing and marketing door-to-door skin and hair care products in Indianapolis. She was an early precursor to Oprah Winfrey-described by Fortune magazine as the world's only black female billionaire.

In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance brought to the world new classics in literature, music, art, and politics. Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald added to the growing list of cultural classics. They joined the ranks of writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and later, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright.

This period of collective struggle and progress was met with a fierce and violent resistance from various domestic terrorist organizations, such as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Between 1882 and 1901, more than 100 lynchings occurred annually, almost all of them black citizens. This fueled the migration of blacks in a two-stage pattern from the rural south to the urban South, and from the urban South to cities in the North.

Leading the intellectual charge to eradicate domestic terror and the vast legal matrix of segregation were intellectual and legal wizards such as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells, and A. Philip Randolph. In the end, it was the emergence of television and mass media that ensured that the story of the freedom struggle and the sorrows of racial injustice reached a distant America.

Sociologist Aldon Morris reports that in 1953, only 45% of American households owned TVs. Five years later, 83% owned them. At the same time, the evening news format expanded from 15 to 30 minutes. Suddenly, all of America could see first hand what was happening in places like Montgomery, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark. They saw Martin Luther King, Jr., a black Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. from Boston who quoted Shakespeare and Aristotle, along with Thomas Jefferson and the prophet Amos. Ultimately, it was his persona and television's craving for charisma that boosted the movement.

Yet again, however, progress and hopefulness was dramatically interrupted by violence on April 4, 1968. King was assassinated, but not without having achieved the moral and legal victories of a new civil rights act, voting rights act, and a U.S. president committed to enforcing them.


This part of the story occurs in the context of a diverse and pluralistic nation that is willing to listen, learn, celebrate, and cooperate to build a stronger nation and world. It is an ever-expanding and evolving history that celebrates achievement without regard for partisanship.

But there is much striving ahead for us if we are to make the American dream real for everyone:

  • 1 in 4 American children lives in poverty; 1 in 2 are minority kids.
  • In 1980, there were 320,000 people in America's prison sytem, today, there are over 2 million.
  • Thirty percent of young black men have been in prison or are under the supervision of the criminal justice system; only 18% have attended college.
  • Poor women spend 25% of their income on day care while affluent women spend 6%.
  • Today, over 70% of African American births occur out of wedlock.
  • But there is much to celebrate, as well:

  • In 1970, 58% of blacks between 25 and 35 had completed high school compared with 77% of whites. In 1990, 82% of blacks completed high school compared with 89% for whites.
  • In 1970, only 7% of blacks had four or more years of college compared with 17% for whites. In 1990, 12.7% of blacks had completed college, compared with 24% for whites.
  • Some gaps are closing. And the progress must inspire us to achieve more. Today, Condoleeza Rice, an African-American woman reared in the segregated south, is Secretary of State of the world's only superpower.

    Let us recall the wise and sobering words of poet Maya Angelou, "History despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But, if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

    I think this is her way of saying that Santayana was right.

    more from beliefnet and our partners
    Close Ad