African Americans have been the sin qua non democratizing force in American history. There is no America we take for granted today, one where we assert that all “men (and women) are created equal,” without Black Americans insisting upon it, full stop. Black people’s intellectual, political, and creative energy expanded our Constitution’s capacity to realize its ideals.
Remember, this process began while most Black people were counted as three fifths of a human being for the purposes of representation in Congress, even as they had “no rights which the White man was bound to respect,” in the infamous words of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. Dred Scott exemplifies how race is foremost a “political category,” to borrow Dorothy Robert’s concept from Fatal Invention. There is no biological basis for a sub-species of humans, or races. The ascription of social significance to phenotype, such as skin tone, is fundamentally about establishing a human hierarchy on which to then justify the uneven distribution of society’s benefits and burdens.
Blacks people’s relentless resistance to slavery forced America to confront its contradiction of claiming life and liberty for all people, while amassing wealth for White male elites on the backs of enslaved Africans. Those enslaved self-manumitted (“ran away”) so regularly that southern state leaders pursued fugitive slave laws requiring northerners to participate in the return of formerly enslaved people to their “masters.” These laws, among other factors, helped to precipitate the Civil War, which would end chattel slavery. And we must never forget the nearly 200,000 Black people who fought in that war, and were critical to the Union victory.
After the war, Black Americans ushered in expansive interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” This amendment, passed just after war’s end, was instrumental in incorporating Black people into the American polity. Through political organizing—including national conventions to create agendas and tactics—protests, and petitions through the legal system, such as the masterful federal and state strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Americans pressed for their full citizenship rights. African Americans’ agitation innovated the playbook for every other marginalized group in this country to realize their rights too—from other minoritized racial groups, to women, to most recently, LGBTQ Americans. (For more on how the Fourteenth Amendment has shaped our Constitution and about the woman/non-binary person who inspired the efforts of both Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg before they ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, watch the Prime documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray”). And last Friday, February 25th, President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to be our country’s first Black woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice, another step forward in the long-standing quest for racial and gender equity in the United States.
Not only our democracy, but our foodways and musical traditions—to highlight but a few domains—as well as the sheer sense of what it means to be an individuated person in loving, reciprocal community is all inflected with Black perspectives. Whites who historically and contemporarily support racism, through myriad forms and degrees of complicity and active anti-Black activity, refuel pre-existing African perspectives on wisdom, community, and beauty that combine with the practical necessities of adapting to the harsh realities of enslavement and slavery’s afterlives.
Black people’s purpose and resolve rushes ever onward, needing no outside affirmation.
In the slave era and now, all of this occurs alongside Black people’s Christian faith. But make no mistake, Blacks’ Biblical interpretation was and is distinct from that of most Whites, who have used the Bible to condone slavery and segregation, as Jemar Tisby methodically lays out in The Color of Compromise (available as a book and on Prime Video). African Americans have faith in a just and liberating God-Yahweh, who brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt with an “a mighty hand and outstretched arm” and into a Promised Land. They believe in Jesus, the Messiah, who came to “preach deliverance to the captives”—bodily and spiritually—and a Holy Spirit vitally vibrant today. This same Spirit inspires ever fuller fulfillment of the New Covenant: radically loving community characterized by shalom—a peace where nothing is broken and nothing is missing, individually or collectively. (For more on Black people’s religious perspectives, read Esau McCaulley’s book Reading while Black).
In the immediate post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, Black people took their new-found freedom, (as W.E.B. Du Bois shows in Black Reconstruction in America ), and established “abolition democracy”—expansive ideations and instantiations of freedom and flourishing far beyond what the signers of the Constitution envisioned. African Americans elected to office in southern states instituted many of the social and health provisions guaranteed in southern state constitutions, among them the right to a publicly-funded education, ensuring Black and White children alike would be literate and numerate. Today, that tradition continues under Black activists, such as Mariame Kaba, and geographers such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who seek to build social systems designed for communal and individual thriving.
Mass land re-distribution, where those formerly enslaved received “40 acres and a mule,” was a short-lived experiment. Notably, it resulted from a meeting between General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with 20 Black ministers, with Garrison Frazier as their spokesperson. Black leaders insisted that those formerly enslaved (and born free) have land as both compensation for work already rendered and to create space for Black people to establish economic, political, and social autonomy. But the land reverted back to White control when Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor, overturned the order. Thus, White federal leaders took the land from those who fought courageously to save the Union, indeed those who most embodied freedom’s yearnings, and returned it to the very people who had committed treason against the United States. Still, in the face of brutal violence by Whites during the Jim Crow period, at its peak in 1910, Black people were 14 percent of U.S. farmers, owning 16 to 19 million acres of land. Presently, African American farmers own significantly less property. (To learn how anti-Black racism led to Blacks losing their land, read this article in The Atlantic; but also check out how Blacks are fighting to keep their land, through such instruments as land cooperatives like New Horizons, founded by Shirley and Charles Sherrod).
Carolina Gold rice became among the most valued food staples in the world. And its success in South Carolina’s Low Country rests on the farming and engineering genius of Africans from present-day Senegal and The Gambia who had mastered the crop’s cultivation before their forced removal from West Africa. In farming, and in the creation of “comfort food,” Black acuity accounts for much of what we all crave today. Who among us would turn down a gooey bowl of macaroni and cheese? (I would because I’m lactose intolerant!). For more on Africans’ contributions to American cuisine, watch the Netflix mini-series “High on the Hog,” based on Jessica B. Harris’s book by the same name.
Finally, what would American sound be without the rhythms of Africa? It’s ubiquitous—from hip hop, to rock, to country and folk. These genres build on Black Americans’ blues, jazz, and gospel traditions. The vocals, harmonies, and instruments are African and African American in origin: the drum, the guitar and banjo, and that soul searing feel that leads us all to touch another world—that’s Black folks. (For more on Black music, see this post from the National Museum of African American History and Culture).
So, while two days after Black History Month, let us take stock of Black people’s contributions to our country. But do know that even if you don’t, Black people’s purpose and resolve rushes ever onward, needing no outside affirmation. We will always fight the good fight. I’m so proud to be a daughter of this community. I am because we are. Ase (AH-SHAY, “let it be,” in Yoruba)
P.S. For those who want to ponder Black genius further, here’s an article on Black inventions.