Black Folks Keep Rescuing America and White Americans Keep Forgetting.
Black History Month began as “Negro History Week.” It was born of the valiant effort of Historian Carter G. Woodson to educate African Americans about their heritage and initially coincided with the birthday of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
Even upon its expansion to a full month, Black History Month was assigned the shortest month in the calendar. Its place on the calendar is both ironic and conceals a repeated truth about the Black experience itself.
For in America, no matter the contribution or heroism of African Americans to the American Project of democracy, white Americans soon suffer a case of negligent amnesia.
Whether it be war or domestic conflict or the test of moral principles, African Americans have stood up with other disfavored and disdained castes within the American social quilt and answered the call of service.
From Barack Obama to Eugene Goodman to Crispus Attucks and Benjamin O. Davis, it has been the unstoppable and undaunted willingness of Black Americans to respond in crisis — to do what Black clerics describe as “standing in the gap.”
This was the experience of the now celebrated Tuskegee fighter pilots who were kept out of combat — indeed, nearly kept out of the Air Corps altogether — as Southern segregationists argued Blacks could never learn to fly an airplane.
Indeed, upon their deployment to Italy, it was only after fighter escorts groups failed to protect American bombers in their critical missions that the Tuskegee pilots were engaged for the deadly missions; missions in which they would encounter some of the first jet-propelled German fighters of World War II.
Black Americans stepped up not only in war, but in peace to serve.
After the assassination of United Nations envoy to Palestine Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948, it was Ralph Johnson Bunche, his chief aide, who stared down danger to bring about peace.
Yet, Bunche like others who had served his country during the Second World War, likely never forgot the stories of Black Americans who upon returning home saw German and former Nazi officers sitting inside cafeterias while Black servicemen took sandwiches to go.
We know America all but forgot the contribution of Black servicemen like the tankers who fought with George Patton, the Tuskegee airmen who escorted bombers into Germany, and Navy Cook Dorie Miller who instantly became a gunner when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
We know this because it was many of these same veterans who would join Martin King and his Southern Movement for Civil Rights, as the late Julian Bond would call it. Many of the fallen and the foremost were veterans themselves, including Mississippi’s Medgar Evers and James Forman — both veterans.
The late Whitney Young, who despite having an engineering degree from M.I.T., was assigned during the war to a Southern road crew, and cut his teeth on mediating racial unrest in the U. S. Army.
But, despite their integral efforts in contributing in both war and in making peace, America’s willful amnesia required they still do more. It required that they continue the fight for first class citizenship after giving first class service.
The American exercise in purposeful forgetfulness would mean that white Americans would still use redlining and both de jure and de facto strategies of exclusion and disenfranchisement.
And, finally, parts of America would resort to the darkest tradition of violence to silence the voices of Black progress.
It is this tradition that may be rising again in this Nation. It is the threat of violence that masquerades as a cry for “greatness” or some loss of power that will as Lincoln prophesied be the greatest danger to our democracy.
But I think the real danger is simply in forgetting.
-Albert Turner Goins, Sr.