This story was originally published on February 2, 2021.
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests brought racism to the forefront of our national discourse. The demonstrations were sparked by current events, particularly the deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, but the BLM rallying cry is a response to a deep-rooted history—a history of being dehumanized and devalued despite vast contributions. As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, now is the time to contextualize our current racial discourse within this history and heed the lessons of the past.
Many people shy away from learning Black history because it puts the ugly truth of racism on full display. Racism is a key backdrop to many contributions made by Black Americans. “First Black person to…” implicitly points out the limitations Black people were previously subjected to. Some of Black Americans’ largest contributions were the result of coercion and systemic oppression. During reconstruction, freed slaves laid the foundation for the South’s first public school systems. The schools they formed were integrated and racially inclusive, but shortly after Reconstruction underfunded segregated schools took their place. George Carver, a former slave himself, discovered the benefits of crop rotation while trying to find techniques to support disinvested Black farmers. Black Americans were critical to the industrialization of the South, literally paving some of today’s major roadways as forced convict laborers in the 19th and 20th centuries. W. E. B. Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro is one of the earliest empirically based sociology studies. Du Bois, who is sometimes called the founder of American sociology, employed this approach in order to dismantle ideas of inherent racial difference. Katherine Johnson calculated rocket trajectories during the space race in segregated NASA facilities. The list goes on—Black people have contributed both despite and because of the racist conditions they were living in.
We must sit with both the beauty and the ugliness of these facts. Acknowledging the ugly not only highlights the formidability of Black Americans’ contributions, it also enhances our ability to move forward. Anti-black racism is a historical problem. It is thus impossible to resolve present-day racial inequities while ignoring the truth of our history. For this truth to take its rightful place at the center of our racial discourse, we have to recognize Black history as part and parcel with American history. Only then will we understand the true nature of our current racial dilemma, and only then will we understand our shared onus to solve it.
Learn more about our history…
From Here to Equality by William A Darity and Kirsten Mullen
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson