Robert L. Harris Jr. and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn are the co-editors of The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939
Some pundits have predicted that Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States spells the end of Black History. That his election as president is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, the culmination of the civil rights movement, the dawn of a post-racial society, and the demise of multiculturalism. Anyone who really heard Aretha Franklin’s unparalleled rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee,” listened carefully to Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, was touched by Elizabeth Alexander’s poem with echoes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown, or was stirred by the black church cadence of Rev. Joseph Lowery understands that Black History is not dead. It is alive and well and was given new vitality by much of the commentary leading up to the inauguration ceremony.
For the first time, many Americans learned that enslaved Africans were used to build the Capitol in front of which Barack Obama took the oath of office and that their labor helped to build the White House in which his family will live. Moreover, a free African American, Benjamin Banneker, helped to lay out the path of the inaugural parade. An astronomer, mathematician, and almanac maker, Banneker was probably the first black presidential appointee when he was named in 1791 as part of a six-member team to design Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital.
In elucidating the meaning of American liberty and fundamental beliefs, President Obama explained it was “why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” But how did we reach the point of electing the first Black President of the United States? When sixty years earlier the nation’s capital was segregated. Those pundits who predict the end of Black History have argued that we must change the African American narrative. That heretofore, the black saga has been a story of victimization, of how African Americans have been wronged by the slave trade, enslavement, segregation, and racial discrimination, which allegedly limited their horizons and their achievement
But that is not the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who President Obama invited to witness his inauguration. The Tuskegee Airmen proved during World War II that African Americans possessed the mental and physical abilities to pilot airplanes. They had to fight a war on two fronts, at home and abroad. They did not see themselves as victims but as American citizens who were determined to enjoy all of the benefits and privileges of citizenship.
Although they were commissioned officers in the U.S. military, they were denied access to military base officer’s clubs. In one instance, they were arrested and charged with insubordination when they tried to enter an officer’s club. One hundred and three of the black airmen faced court martial charges that were later dropped but which remained on their records until 1995 when they were finally expunged by President William J. Clinton. In many respects, the heroism, bravery, resolve, and example of the Tuskegee Airmen led to the beginning of military desegregation in 1947.
Has President Obama fulfilled Dr. King’s dream of freedom, justice, and equality for all Americans? As President Obama declared in his Inaugural Address, we are on a journey toward realizing the promise of America. In his March 18, 2008 speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia, then candidate Obama explained “…I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy…” President Obama understands perhaps more than others that his inauguration is a beginning and not an end.
And to understand this “new beginning,” this effort “to remake America,” we must understand what America is and how it began. Not to stick us in the past but to help propel us into the future. Elizabeth Alexander in her Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” remarked “We encounter each other in words…Words to consider, reconsider.” Those words spring from a source and to grasp their meaning, we must understand their source. Black history has been about creativity as much as anything else. To music, dance, literature, poetry, art, sculpture, quilting, and cuisine, we brought our sensibility and in President Obama’s words contributed to the patchwork heritage that is the United States. Aretha Franklin’s voice and style spring from a source rooted in the African American experience and in our encounter with the United States.
Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction with the words from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” The Negro National Anthem, composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1900, its lyrics a summary of black history, hopes, and aspirations. Rev. Lowery brought a smile to President Obama’s face when he revised an expression well known in black homes, churches, beauty parlors, and barber shops: “help us work for the day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when red can get ahead, and when white will embrace what is right.” It is not just the black condition but black genius that has made Black history, nourished this nation, and now produced a President.