Every February we celebrate National African-American History Month in the United States – a time to reflect on the enormous hardships faced by generations of African-Americans, but also an opportunity to celebrate their enormous contributions to the success of our nation. The United States would not be the country it is today without the strength, determination, faith, creativity and drive of its African-American countrymen. The experiences, ideas, and perspectives of the African-American community contribute to the vitality and success of the American experience.
In the early 20th century, most African-Americans lived in the rural American South. Facing entrenched racism, segregation, and economic marginalization, over 6 million people migrated north in search of a better life. Like the millions of Europeans who emigrated from Slovakia and Central Europe, African-Americans found better economic opportunities in cities like Chicago, New York and Detroit, where World War I had caused labor shortages. African-Americans joined side by side with European immigrants to work in steel mills, on railroads, in meatpacking plants, and in the automobile industry, turning America into the greatest industrial power on the planet.
At the same time, African-Americans brought with them their music and art, their food, their style of worship, and their sense of community, and in the process re-shaped America’s own identity and its vision of itself. Today if we think about many elements of American popular culture, they have their roots in African-American culture.
Rock and Roll music grew out of the Blues of the deep south, with world-famous musicians such as Elvis Presley being inspired by unheralded men such as Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Today hip-hop and Rhythm and Blues dominate the airwaves. Contemporary fashion has been significantly influenced by African-Americans’ urban experience, while many of today’s most popular comedians, actors and entertainers have African roots.
In spite of all these successes and contributions, we, as a nation, still struggle every day to overcome racism and intolerance. We are continually reminded both of how far we have come in accepting and integrating our African-American countrymen, but also of how far we yet to go. However, as the poet and author James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
From Chuck Berry to Beyonce Knowles, from Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison, and from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama, African-Americans have left an indelible mark on the American experience. This month, we celebrate their contributions to our country and to the world, and hope the experience of their community can serve as an example for societies everywhere. As President Obama has said, we must remain actively focused on ensuring equal opportunity, openness, and inclusiveness. No matter who someone is, what someone looks like, or where someone comes from, they deserve the same opportunity to thrive. As the President said, “Where you start should not determine where you end up.”