Daryl Grigsby: A look at the contributions of black Americans throughout history
Since 1926, when scholar Carter G. Woodson launched “Negro History Week,” February has marked the celebration of Black History Month. Programs, commercials and events rightly acknowledge the lives of many famous African-Americans; Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou are among the many recognized this month.
February should also be a time to acknowledge significant individuals as well as the entire race. Black Americans have dramatically shaped the contours of the nation’s politics, economy, culture and faith. America’s black presence began in 1619 with the arrival of 20 African slaves. The four million slaves freed at the end of the Civil War have now grown to 47 million people, almost 15% of the total population of the United States.
African Americans have influenced the nation in four important areas. First, black struggles for democracy and fairness have changed our political landscape. Slavery and its accompanying rape, torture and murder created a sense of fairness within the black community that fuels a commitment to democracy. Both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement are examples of this impulse toward justice. During Reconstruction, black elected officials promoted policies that benefited both the black population and poor whites. Voting rights, educational opportunities, and social programs were expanded far beyond what the former Southern slave aristocracy provided.
The Civil Rights Movement is another expression of black democracy. Preachers, domestic workers, teachers and students completed a nonviolent revolution that overthrew segregation. They met lynch mobs, bombings, and assassinations with songs, prayers, and remarkable courage. Observers note that many of the rights enjoyed by women, labor, gays and lesbians are rooted in the sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement.
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A second arena of black contribution is the nation’s economy. Historian Edward E. Baptist’s book “The Half Has Never Been Told,” details how enslaved blacks provided the foundation of America’s economic growth. He notes that the transformation of small southern farms into the “Cotton Kingdom” fueled the U.S. economic expansion that continues today. Baptist notes that the United States seized control of the world cotton market at a time when cotton was the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution. This monopoly was the basis of America’s global economic strength. In many respects the pain of African-American slaves laid the foundation for the economic benefits enjoyed today by the entire nation. For 246 years, this labor was uncompensated and fueled by unimaginable atrocities.
A third area where the black community has influenced the nation is in cultural expression. While dance, art and literature bear the mark of black contributions, music is the most significant. Blues and gospel originated from slave work songs and African “shouts,” and the blues became the foundation of rock and roll. Jazz, cited as “the most unique and authentic American art form,” has origins in and gains depth from Black America. Hip-hop, born in the urban North, flourishes as a global art form. Hip-hop beats and lyrics can be heard in Tanzania, Mexico, Palestine, France, Nigeria, Korea and elsewhere.
Finally, blacks have influenced religion and faith in America. For almost 200 years, with the exception of Quakers and religious abolitionists; the majority of white churches were stained with complicity in and support of slavery. Consequently, scholar C. Eric Lincoln says that for two centuries the only authentic Christian expression were slave religious gatherings and the free black church in the North. During the Civil Rights movement, the motto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “to save the soul of America.”
Even today, the Pew Research Center survey of Religion and Public Life validates the strength of black religious faith. When asked about your certain belief in God, the importance of religion in your daily life, and how much you depend on prayer, black Americans responded “Yes” in far greater percentages than every other ethnic group. While many mainline denominations are losing members and influence, the black church continues to be an important force in the lives of black Americans.
This February, as we recall the deeds of Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune, and many others, let us acknowledge the contributions of all black Americans to the political, economic, cultural and religious state of our entire nation.
Daryl Grigsby lives in Nevada City.
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