Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Why Black History is So Important

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There was a time in our nation when Black History was an unknown and unrecorded “commodity”which prompted the founder of Black History Month, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, to select February as the month to annually observe and celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans and black people the world over. Black History is thus  trans civilizational and trans cultural and African-American History is an important aspect of Black History whose genesis and roots emanate from a wide variety of cultural sources and traditions. 

Some people today have questioned the need for black history month celebrations. Others believe that each day of every month should be spent discovering and celebrating the myriad contributions of black people to world civilization and culture.  Thankfully in many places in our land, we have moved away from apologizing and being defensive about the need to celebrate black history as many other races and ethnic groups are also happily celebrating their own cultural legacies and histories. It is my belief that we can affirm our unique histories and traditions as a particular ethnic or racial group in America and still celebrate our collective history as people in America. America is a “tossed salad” or a “melting pot” to use Gunnar Myrdal’s terms, a confluence of many different folkways and traditions that have shaped our national character and identity.

Joe Madison in his radio broadcast makes a point to reveal some well-known and unknown facts about black history to his listening audience each day and is always reminding us of the important contributions that we have made to America in particular and the world in general. I have garnered a wealth of information listening to Joe each morning. Mr. Madison has a unique way of revealing obscure figures of black history whose contributions to America have been as stellar as they have been astounding and he is to be commended for his outstanding efforts.

Black History is very important and it good that we discover and celebrate it in America and throughout the world. This is not only significant for African-Americans but for all Americans. Such celebrations broaden our knowledge and understanding of who we really are and how we have made invaluable contributions to our nation and world and how other peoples have aided our struggle for freedom and justice. It also helps people of other cultures and races to appreciate our history and legacy and to join in those celebrations with us.

This history is important because it provides an opportunity for many blacks to presently gain viable information about their past. It is important because it helps to dispel the myths that African-Americans have made no meaningful contributions to America and it also provides other races and peoples an opportunity to look through our models of human existence to see and appreciate our true strengths and gifts as a people and to identify something of their own stories and journeys as human beings that too can inspire them upward.

I am one who believes that African Americana  personifies and embodies the best ( and sometimes worst) of African and European cultural traditions; that our hyphenated status belies the true value of how we have appropriated various dimensions of African and European American experiences and crafted them into viable paradigms of human existence that have aided and abetted our original contributions and adaptation to the larger culture, our assimilation into it as well as our transcendence above it to fashion unique patterns of being, knowing and seeing that distinguish us from other peoples. African-Americans have inculcated the complexities and nuances of the world of Africa and the world of Europe. These various constructs of human existence, which have had competing and conflicting claims as well as shared outlooks and equations, have compelled our provenance and adaptation to them and our innovation and adoption of them but also in other ways have fostered our continuing dislocation from them. 

Molefi Asante, scholar and founder of the Afri-Centric Movement, reminds us that all attempts at discovering, refurbishing, clarifying and qualifying our history are simply cogent efforts to establish and relocate ourselves in the continuum of human history and to place them alongside of the narratives of other peoples of the world. The celebration of black history then becomes a concerted effort to help people of African descent and others to rediscover and relocate themselves and their true contributions to world civilization and development. There is something empowering about knowing and rediscovering that history and re-establishing one’s rightful place in it. Contrary to some long-held assumptions, these efforts do not preclude African-Americans from seeing and valuing the contributions of other peoples of the world. 

Thus the full story of our history is still being revealed.  The narrative forms of that history are also morphing into new narratives that both disclose who we are and what we will yet become, and shed even more light on our journey; its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures, its victories and defeats and the numerous ways in which the chaos of human existence has been ordered and harmonized into triumphant cultural patterns and vibrant life forms that still live with us today.

Important in understanding the history of any people is to truly know not only what they have done for survival, sensibility and achievement but how they have achieved that existence. How we have accomplished those great things is nearly as important as what we have accomplished, and such lessons are important not just for African-Americans but for all people and students of history interested in discovering the ways and means in which various tribes and aggregates of humans have managed to come through the many dangers, toils and snares of their earthly odyssey and sojourns.

In looking at African-American history, we see the chronicles of the twilight struggles of multiple forms of human suffering but we also see a legacy and heritage of outstanding achievement amid that suffering. All groups in a given society have experienced their own forms of alienation and struggle and have managed to tell their stories of how they have overcome. Some of those narratives are more prominent than others but all people at some time or another in their histories in America and in the world at large have experienced the status of outsiders or pariahs and have found creative ways to manage themselves completely through it or not completely at all because the struggle still continues.

The African-American experience is not unique in this regard, but is unique inasmuch as the circumstances in which we were brought to America, the duration and nature of our racial oppression and suffering, how we survived what Kenneth Stampp called that peculiar institution of slavery; how we navigated the perils of  Jim Crow Sr and Jim Crow Jr and are still facing and surmounting our many similar and different challenges today, is part of our unique cultural and social signatures as a people in this nation and world. 

While other blacks have struggled through the tyrannies of racial oppression such as South Africa, and other parts of the world, there remains a sui generis quality to the nature of our struggle that can be paralleled with other peoples but remains quite different. Through it all we have managed to forge a particular paradigm of human freedom which has valued the virtues of the larger culture and fostered our adaptation to it even while winnowing our status as outsiders, and still shining forth a continuing creativity and freedom in relation to that culture.

The African-American experience, with perhaps the exception of First Nation peoples, remains the pre-eminent paradigm shaping the dominant narratives of human suffering and triumph on American soil. Important here to remember is not only what happened to us but how we took what happened to us and sculpted it into viable patterns of human existence that have facilitated our adaptation, innovation and survival  in America.

While racial motifs and themes have become the dominant characteristics of our unique human paradigm as African-Americans and how we have had to struggle to overcome the racial, social, political and economic barriers created by the cultural conditioning and continuing realities of race and racism,  every race of people should be able to look through the windows of our experiences and gather something of value that will facilitate their own understanding of who they are, how far they have come and how they too can continue to survive and overcome as human beings and members of one human family. Looking through the various windows of the African-American experience should enable us to not only see our unique gifts as a people but also help us appreciate the common ground we share as members of the human race. If the experience of African-Americans can inspire others to come to terms with themselves, their environment and even their adversaries in ways that will give them strength and dignity in their current cultural and social contexts, then black history again provides another reason for its true importance. Notwithstanding the realities of race and racism, the universal themes of human suffering, oppression and its domesticating and liberating influences are realities that speak to all peoples everywhere at some time or another. 

Moreover, in the evaluation of our history and its more dreadful aspects, we tend to focus exclusively on who did what to us and the who and what they did to us become the overarching concerns especially if the who is still doing those things to us. While being mindful of who did what to us is important in not repeating the painful lessons of the past, also significant is how we have managed ourselves through and beyond those painful experiences so as to not become the who and the what that was done to us in response to what was done to us.

For example, the measure of violence used against us should never in any way become the measure of violence that we use against others. Contrary to recent statements about the sources of non-violence in the African-American community, various forms of non-violence have always been practiced since the beginning our time in America. Rather than analyze our history as a means of meting violence against others as retribution for their violence against us, we should view that history from the points of its strength in examining how we were able adapt to a culture of violence, by adopting life survival strategies that compelled us to transcend the indignities of violence and its various retributive and dehumanizing forms. African-Americans since the beginning of time in America have always practiced special forms of non-violence that also extended into the social practices and mantras of the modern Civil Rights movement. While the philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi helped Dr. King and others codify and solidify nonviolence practice into intentional collective strategies for social change, the realities of non-violent practice have always been part of the cultural sensibilities and survival matrix of African-Americans from slavery to the present.

My point is that by undertaking as serious evaluation of black history and its strengths, by finding ways of discovering what we achieved and how we achieved it under various conditions of oppression, we can learn something more about how we have overcome which can be invaluable lessons not only to present and future generations but to all people everywhere. By focusing our strengths and overcoming our weaknesses, we have fashioned a legacy of hope and survival that should be an inspiration for all human kind and that is another of many reasons why black history is so important.

Thus African-American History has been an important part of American history and vice versa. In order to understand who we truly are as Americans, how we can avoid the mistakes of the past and discover the true power and potential of what we can ultimately become as a nation, it is important that we study that history, affirm and celebrate its strengths and gifts and utilize its most important lessons to make our nation, community and the world at large a place of hope, freedom, dignity, justice, prosperity and peace for present generations and those many thousand generations to come.

2 responses to “Why Black History is So Important”

  1. Antoine E. Geffrard, M.D. Avatar
    Antoine E. Geffrard, M.D.

    I was fortunate. My parents gave me the most fundamental and useful exposure to black history I would ever receive when they told me about my family history. They told me not just about the shining examples of achievement and success over the generations, but also the “bad apples”, under-achievers and gangsters. It was a personal history that added context and foundation to my life. What gave me shoulders to stand on as a growing black child was the knowledge that I “had people”, good and bad, that came before me, and that I was somehow connected and responsible to them as I grew into a man. Though I came to adulthood in the “radical” 70’s, attended liberal Oberlin College in the midst of a surge in black culture and history unseen since the Harlem renaissance – nothing I learned served me personally as well as what was provided in the bosom of my family.
    For black folks in America, it seems the most practically useful history is that of the black family in America – transmitted father to son and daughter, mother to son and daughter. It is personal, substantial, and immediately applicable in the early formation of character and self esteem in a people increasingly in need of both.
    I applaud the telling of truth – rightfully including the record of contributions and achievements of black people throughout the transcultural, international mists of time. These truths are important for the edification of all men, across all cultures. Most importantly though, it’s imperative that black people convey to their children who they are and have been, father to son and daughter, mother to son and daughter. This is the most valuable black history education of all.

    1. cfstewart Avatar

      Thanks Doc for your comments. Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. I appreciate you and your visit to the website. Feel free to offer any suggestions for titles or improvements. God bless you.

      Pastor C

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