I’ve sometimes heard, “Why do we need a whole month focused on the history of only one race?” Well, how can we get educated about the significant but little-known (or unacknowledged) contributions that African Americans have made to our country? Such as the very foundation of our cities, government buildings, and transportation systems built on the backs of enslaved (mostly Black) folks. Many of us don’t know that much of the music and dance we think of as “American” actually came from African roots. In many schools, these facts are barely taught, if at all.
As for the harm inflicted on these fellow Americans? In school, we are taught about the Civil War, but do we focus on the enslaved being 3/5 of a person in our Constitution, or the long, hard fight for voting rights (that is still being denied in some places)? How can we do better as a community or nation if we don’t know the whole truth of the buildings we walk into, the systems we engage with, or the culture we enjoy every day? That’s the purpose of having history and social studies in our school curricula, right? Applying that knowledge in our lives today makes us better citizens to fully understand where we come from and what we’ve designed, built, and sustained.
As I’ve learned more through my master’s program and personal research over the last decade, I continually discover how much I don’t know (and should) about Black history in America, even Colorado. There are some things we should be proud of, for instance. Many don’t know that Colorado was the first state in the country that had both a Black House speaker and Black Senate president leading our state legislature at the same time. I remember that year of 2009 well because that was my freshman year in the state Senate. I was proud and grateful for their stewardship. Recently, Colorado has passed some landmark legislation to prevent discrimination against Black people in employment, school, and in their daily lives. I’m hoping Coloradans are proud of these significant movements toward equity and equality in our state.
But are we aware of some of our unspoken, unwritten history of harm in our Centennial state? While in the Senate, I learned that some of our desks on the floor, where we sat for hours each session, had housed legislators’ Ku Klux Klan hoods for their meetings in the evenings. Sitting at my desk, I’d look down occasionally at that space wondering if mine was one of those desks. Legislators elected to represent ALL the people were openly carrying their garb of hate with them onto that sacred floor. These, too, are the historical stories of Colorado. And they are just as important to know so that we never return to those days of open bigotry and hostility toward our neighbors. Or have we?
I don’t have the space on the page to go into all the other reasons why we continue to need Black History Month — the uneducated demonization of critical race theory, the public showings of racial violence, and a current U.S. Supreme Court majority that sees no urgency to protect the right to vote for Black Americans when gerrymandering and voter suppression are alive and well.
Everyone wants to live peacefully and prosperously. Isn’t that what we’re told is the American Dream? If we’re all going to have that, we need to cohabitate with empathy and respect, and that’s hard to do without first understanding each other and our history.
Former Colorado state senator, now with a master’s in Social Justice and Ethics from Iliff School of Theology, Linda Newell is a writer, instructor, facilitator, and conflict coach. Senlindanewell@gmail.com, www.lindanewell.org, www.senlindanewell.com, @sennewell on Twitter, Senator Linda Newell on Facebook.