Memory  /  Argument

Why Are We Still Segregating Black History in February?

The persistence of segregated histories masks a critical truth: there is no American history without African-American history.

African-Americans served as soldiers in every single U.S. military engagement. Many thousands fought with the patriots during the American Revolution, along with Afro-Haitians in Georgia and Afro-Cubans and Afro-Mexicans who fought against the British in Florida. African-Americans and Afro-Haitians fought for the United States again during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Americans fled plantations to fight for the freedom of others. (Looking at South Carolina’s declaration of secession, one could argue that it was enslaved Americans freeing themselves—and Northerners failing to return them—that instigated the war.) Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to officially enlist the massive tide of enslaved Americans fighting for the nation, whose service, Lincoln ultimately recognized, was crucial to preserving the Union.

In the United States, we have been conditioned to think of black people as a minority, but throughout the 19th century nearly half of all Southerners were black, and today African-Americans comprise substantial populations of major cities like New York, L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami and majorities in many cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Richmond, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

We will not understand American history until we understand how it is inextricably entwined with African-American history. The history of slavery is every American’s history because it formed our country and continues to shape our economic, political, social, and demographic landscape. However, the continuous struggle against slavery—and slavery’s ubiquitous fallout—and toward democracy is a powerful tradition, largely generated by Americans of African descent, which we can celebrate and build upon. Teaching our children that black history belongs to one abbreviated month when the faces of a few representative figures appear on bulletin boards does both the past and the future a grave disservice. Black history has always been American history, from the Age of Exploration through today. We must recognize our past as an integrated narrative in order to understand ourselves as Americans, with a shared history, a shared present, and a shared future.