F. Willis Johnson: Black History is essential to the American experience

F. Willis Johnson

F. Willis Johnson

Amid the backdrop of an imminent presidential election, geopolitical discord and tensions in our democratic republic, I take a moment to reflect on Black History Month’s enduring significance in our modern era. A period of remembrance and reflection, Black History Month is not a mere historical footnote but a living, breathing testament to the Black American story — a narrative as vital now as it was when Carter G. Woodson first inaugurated Negro History Week nearly a century ago.

Black History Month is a journey through the annals of time where the brambles of profound injustice trapped the existence of African Diasporic people to the luminous trails forged through unyielding resilience, intellect and indomitable spirit. The inheritance left by our ancestors is not merely a record of bygone adversities and victories — it serves as a cornerstone for comprehending our present and constructing a future radiant with promise and anchored in equity.

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To me, Black History Month is a sort of palms of lament, an appointed time of tribute to those forebears who laid down paths of opportunity while shouldering the burdens of systemic inequity. It was an anointed time to venerate figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, whose relentless quest for freedom shone a guiding light for others to follow. We celebrate visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream remains a beacon of hope we continue to pursue, and the myriad unsung heroes whose contributions are inscribed in the heart of our nation, if not on its monuments.

In an era where information flows like an unceasing deluge, there is a stark absence within the mainstream narrative — a chasm where the history of African Americans is either fragmented or altogether absent. This neglect becomes starkly apparent when one considers the enduring disparities in education, health care, economic opportunity and representation that systematically marginalized Black communities.

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. (Agence France Presse/Central Press/Getty Images/TNS)

Black History Month addresses these inequalities by bringing African American stories to the forefront, acknowledging the pain, sacrifices and remarkable accomplishments that have molded our society. From the intelligent sociological insights of W.E.B. Du Bois to the pioneering political endeavors of Shirley Chisholm, from Katherine Johnson’s mathematical prowess that propelled space exploration to Barack Obama’s historic ascent to the presidency.

To understand this history is to engage not just in remembrance but in active exploration. All Americans should immerse themselves in such narratives — not as a perfunctory acknowledgment, but in recognition that our collective past, welfare and destinies are intertwined.

Resistance to ethnocultural education and diversity, equity and inclusive instruction derives from the discomfort of confronting the painful truths of our past. But sidestepping these critical topics and realities frays the fabric of the nation’s story. Through the lens of our shared history, we can gain a deeper understanding of the systemic barriers that continue to influence the present. By embracing these educational efforts, we cultivate a more informed citizenry equipped with the empathy and knowledge necessary to foster a more just and inclusive future.

It’s not merely about learning dates and names. It’s about instilling a consciousness that compels action and cultivates a society where equality and understanding are paramount.

February is a powerful reminder that the quest for justice and equality remains unfulfilled. As the director of programs for Bridge Alliance and as a host fostering dialogues on race within our communities through the Collage podcast, I often stress that awareness is the precursor to action. The insights gleaned from Black History Month observances can cultivate solidarity among all people, promoting a more equitable and representative world.

By honoring the existential existence of African Americans and African diaspora, we pay homage to their enduring living legacy. This February, join us in the ongoing work of elevating and amplifying all the beautiful, diverse stories and people, for they are the threads of a colorfully woven fabric, our shared American experience.

Johnson is a United Methodist pastor, the author of “Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community” and program director for the Bridge Alliance.

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