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United Way Blog

Beyond Reflection: The Enduring Journey of African American Triumph and Tradition

For me, Black History Month is so much more than a time of reflection, acknowledgement, and celebration of the contributions African Americans have made to the tapestry of America.  I am continually learning about the journey that led us to become more than property and two-thirds of a person.  I am expanding my understanding of the many ways we have cultivated the power of community to reach goals once considered out of reach.  All too often we had little to no resources other than determination and God-given gifts to bring to the struggle.

As a native South Carolinian, I have seen the best and worst of the African American journey up close and personal.  My parents were Civil Rights leaders living with the daily cost of speaking out - violence and persecution.  They drew courage and strength from their community alongside the knowledge that they were on the right side of history.  It was time to fight for access to the ballot, education, and financial opportunity.  They believed they had to pave the way for the generations to come, even if they had to pay in blood.

The African American struggle for equal opportunity in the United States has never been an easy task.  The desire to have our humanity seen and valued is reflected throughout our history in everything we produce: music, art, clothing, food, and expressions of faith.  Within the prayers and actions of the ones who came before, we have told our stories and shared experiences.  There is no mystery as to why the Civil Rights Movement was so important and necessary at its appointed place in time.  

It is often forgotten that African Americans started our American journey without a common language or understanding of the world they were thrust into.  Yet, we found ways to forge a destiny with dreams of freedom and citizenship.  We were unhindered by these barriers and combined our traditions, spiritual practices, crafts, and cooking styles to establish communities that reflected our need for self-expression.  Although we were separate and unequal, we continuously contributed to the strength and majesty of America’s story.  From the beginning, we have weaved our knowledge of agriculture, hunting, fishing, natural medicines, and the creative arts into the American tapestry in ways that have enriched us all. 

As I celebrate Black History Month 2024, I listen to the voices from our past and see the power and resilience of community as a driving force for change.  It is easy to look at the journey of successful individuals and label them extraordinary in their achievements.  Taking nothing away from this truth, I would add there has always been a village, a community, that lent support and validation.  There was a time when many communities had just one or two people who could read.  From these communities came teachers, engineers, doctors, and lawyers.  Literacy lifted individuals like Langston Hughes from being a mere observer to speaking his heart through the beauty and power of the written word.  In 1926 he wrote the poem “I, Too” to describe his isolation and rejection.  He then went on to write, “One-Way Ticket” in 1949 after declaring he was leaving the South to go in any direction.  

Throughout our journey in America, we have used our creativity to express our individualism and intelligence.  It has always come at a cost many were willing to pay or had already paid.  In 1939, the blues singer Billie Holiday wrote “Strange Fruit,” with haunting lyrics that described lynching.  Like many before her, she placed a marker in time to capture the pain and suffering of their generation.  Sam Cooke wrote the beautiful song, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which was released to critical acclaim in 1964.  To this day, many African Americans clearly hear the remnants of his pain and frustration in each line of the lyrics.  He wrote of his dream and faith that change was coming.  In 1969, Maya Angelou added her voice to the historical tapestry of oppression in her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  She wrote, “the caged bird sings. with a fearful trill. of things unknown. but longed for still.” 

Through the art and writings of eyewitnesses, I gain a glimpse of the hearts and minds of those who left a piece of themselves behind.  They sought to ensure future generations would always know the struggle was real. Very real. History books may debate the extent and impact of slavery and oppression, but thankfully, we have the words and voices of those who chronicled their experiences across many mediums in real time.  They did it for themselves, their families, their friends, and their communities.  The story of the African American journey reflects a fundamental truth: we are a determined people. We are determined to dream, build, love, worship, sing, and experience all that is life in America.  

I encourage everyone to take some time this month to connect with the voices from our past.  Spend some time appreciating what are now immortal words and experiences. They are a powerful link to our story as a people living, dreaming, and thriving in America