By Joe Finn, MHSA President & Executive Director
Our cultural view of history often takes what one might refer to as the “Great Person” approach. It zeroes in on admittedly talented and gifted persons who led great movements, impacted our government, invented something critical, wrote significant pieces of literature or made some other great contribution in the arts, sciences or athletics. During Black History Month, the importance of this paradigm cannot be stressed enough because it holds up examples, especially to Black schoolchildren, of people who looked like them who overcame great odds to succeed in their different vocations, professions or areas of interest. All of this is wholly appropriate and has inspired people of all races. There is only one small defect in such an approach. It sometimes forgets the ordinary masses of people who make up the moments of history.
What is the impact of ordinary groups of those often forgotten or ignored, those whom we may never know but who are weaved as surely into the fabric of who we are as a nation as the most famous of generals? And so, this Black History Month, that is where my mind turns, to reflect on those Black persons who impact our history. Unfortunately, that history begins with the fear, death and trauma of all those ripped from their native lands to be condemned to the brutality of slavery for generations. How did they endure? What faith in their own humanity and dignity of spirit it must have taken to rise from such circumstances.
The story of course does not stop there. What about those who fled the brutal chains of slavery and escaped toward freedom, often risking death? Then there were all of those actively engaged in the abolition movement and those freed Black persons who risked all again in assisting others to achieve the freedom they had achieved. When the Civil War resulting from the institution of slavery commenced, there were thousands of Blacks, both free and formerly enslaved people, who volunteered to fight for the Union. They must have had such a strong conviction to fight for the aspirational ideals of a nation that urged the liberty of all, all the while knowing full well that such aspirations had never applied to them.
I wish I could say that this war represented a rebirth in liberty for all, but we know it did not and we cannot forget those who endured the racist Jim Crow laws and the debilitating effects of years of segregation. Then there were the masses of people who made the fight for civil rights for Blacks viable and strong. Who can forget the number of courageous Black people in places like Birmingham and Selma, and of course the marchers who came from all over to be at the Lincoln Monument for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s articulation of a dream? History has a unique way of remembering people. While Rosa Parks is certainly to be remembered for her courage and her activism, today I think it is important to remember there were many unnamed before her who, because of their own sense of dignity and desire for true liberty, refused to sit at the back of the bus.
I think it is important to reflect this month on the ordinary people because it is time for a serious reality check for those of us who are not Black. We cannot escape our own history. There is much handwringing from some circles across the entire nation over “critical race theory” and school curriculum that does not affirm our national legacy. Some claim that the discussion of equity represents a threat to the ideological purity of our nation. Why should our children be taught this stuff?
Given all of this, should we not remember the ordinary people today who find themselves still suffering – and dying – in the present under the direct and residual economic, social and political impact of the past? Personally, I think we should teach the difficult aspects of our history and the present as well as our aspirations. If, as a nation, we are not willing to face history and our current reality in such a manner, I will then fear for the history of all ordinary people for years to come.