This month is Black History Month. In reality, every month is Black History month, because without black people, there would be no United States.
Black history is tied up with slavery and capitalism, territorial expansion, annihilation of native Americans, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and ongoing inequality. It is tied up with these elements not as a peripheral happening on the margins of America, but as central to American development.
The first person killed in the American Revolution was a black man in Boston; Crispus Attucks, born a slave, was shot during the Boston Massacre. What is more telling about the American revolution is the thousands of blacks who fled to the British to gain their freedom. In England slavery had never been authorized by law. In the American colonies, slavery was sanctified by the colonies.
The founders of our country embedded slavery into the American legal system. They continued the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They gave extra political power to the slave south by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment and representation. They mandated that escaped slaves must be returned to their original owners. That’s all in the constitution, written by the founders, white men from both the North and South.
Thomas Jefferson opened up new pathways for slavery with the Louisiana Purchase, bringing parts of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico into the nation. This territorial expansion resulted in tremendous agricultural development, enabled through slavery.
Who were the slave owners? Our presidents, to start with. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor. Washington owned more than 250 slaves, Jefferson 200 slaves, Madison over 100, Andrew Jackson 200. But really, to own just one other person as property is damning all by itself. These men did not just own slaves, they sold slaves, whipped slaves, broke up the families of slaves, and raped slaves. This is not just part of black history, it is an essential part of American history.
Who is an American hero? Is it James Monroe, a signer of the constitution, our fifth President, and the absentee plantation owner whose overseers whipped slaves to work harder? Or is it Denmark Vesey, the free black organizer of a slave rebellion in South Carolina who was executed for this attempted act of liberation when Monroe was president? Is it Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831 in Virginia? Or is it Andrew Jackson, the president during this rebellion, who owned a prosperous Hermitage plantation built on the backs of hundreds of slaves, who waged war on the Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee Indians, and who signed and put into force the Indian Removal Act, forcing tens of thousands of Cherokee from Georgia, opening up the southeast for the expansion of slavery.
Black people turned the American civil war into a war of liberation. Once the war began, hundreds of thousands of blacks fled to union lines. They forced Abraham Lincoln to make this a war for the emancipation of slaves. And as white men faltered and refused to sign up to fight, black soldiers took their places, fighting for the union, for emancipation, for themselves.
The acts of black people, both free and slaves, to overcome slavery, to liberate themselves, to become people who could actually strive for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, these were and are acts of utmost patriotism.
During Black History Month we celebrate the accomplishments of black people who are not threatening, people like the former slave George Washington who founded Centralia, or George Washington Carver, the famed botanist. But in telling black history as the integral part of American history, we could and should be celebrating those people who fled the colonies to gain their freedom, who led the rebellions against American slavery and the expansion of slavery, who enabled slaves to escape to freedom on the “ underground railroad.”
We should be celebrating Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, the 54th Massachusetts (colored) infantry from the Civil War, and 20th century leaders who made the establishment uncomfortable, people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. These are the Americans who were brave and strong and lost their lives to help our country become, indeed, a more perfect union.
And we still have a long way to go.
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