It’s February – the month we celebrate the achievements and history of Black Americans. You can be sure we’ll hear about the brave souls that risked or even gave their lives to achieve rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.
We’ll hear about great Black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and about barrier-breaking athletes like Jackie Robinson. Most have become household names. There will be quotes galore from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But there are forgotten and fascinating people we also ought to learn about, such as Bass Reeves, one of the first U.S. marshals appointed to the Indian Territories. He served for 32 years in that capacity, making over 3,000 felony arrests and killing 14 men in the process.
Upon his death in 1910, he received a backhanded tribute in the Muskogee Phoenix: “And it is lamentable that we as white people must go to this poor, simple old negro to learn a lesson in courage, honesty and faithfulness to official duty.”
Another person to learn about is Matthew Henson, a courageous Black American who dragged an ailing Robert Peary across the finish line on a sled, making Henson technically the first human ever to reach the North Pole. Yet it was Peary who was lauded and promoted to rear admiral, while Henson was given an honorary burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Then there’s Mary Eliza Mahoney, who, in 1879, became the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. Unable to get a job in public nursing because of discrimination, she worked as a private nurse, and in 1908, co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
You will find Black people threaded throughout our complex history, and that is what bothers me about Black History Month: Why does America need a special month to acknowledge that Black Americans are truly a part of our story? Why, in many colleges and high schools, might Black history be taught as its own course, yet when it comes to courses in “American history,” Black involvement is mostly confined to the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement? Don’t we belong here?
Maybe Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was just confused recently when, after Senate Democrats failed to pass a voting rights act, he said, “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” McConnell said he made an inadvertent mistake.
I look forward to a time that we celebrate Black Americans’ full inclusion in the American Dream of democracy and nation building, even if that history includes painful episodes that make us cringe today.
We have had a long fight for rights that we still do not enjoy, like full, unrestricted voting privileges. The recent move of some states to decrease access to the polls seems a throwback to the Jim Crow wave of discrimination that followed the Civil War.
If I seem grouchy, I plead guilty. But what I reckon when I read about the past is that it’s been 157 years since the end of the war that freed Black slaves, 68 years after Brown vs. Board of Education mandated equal education for Blacks, 58 years after the Civil Rights Act assured all people equal rights under the law, and 57 years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which assured everyone the right to vote. Yet here we are, still on the margins of acceptance.
I want us to acknowledge that Black Americans are a part of the American story, along with its villains and heroes, its quirky individuals, and its ordinary and often conflicted citizens. Black Americans should be woven into the narrative because, in fact, Black Americans helped shape the American story, fighting in world wars, pressing for basic rights and working every job they could get in the face of discrimination.
When that’s finally accepted, we can let February find something else to tell stories about.
Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org. He is a retired backcountry ranger, current wildland fire manager, journalist, and founding director of the civilconversationsproject.org.