Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Black History

I don’t know the exact time that I first saw the image of two black men with clenched fists upon a podium, but I absolutely remember the way it made me feel. Without knowing the circumstances, I knew precisely what their protest was about and why they used that platform as a mechanism to make their statement.

It wasn’t until later that I did some research and learned more about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Few photographs are as meaningful and powerful as that of those two men at that moment. Few photographs evoke the emotions of discontent and freedom of expression and those that do are not nearly as memorable. The display was both justified and uncomfortable as they tip toed the line of what it means to be patriotic. And despite all of the controversy that followed to include protests and the stripping of their medals that single act taught me more of what it means to be American than anything else that I can recall.

February marks the seldom celebrated, black history month. Although Americans recognize it as such, I would argue few really know why we can continually learn from the African-American experience. Today in schools, students are taught the civil rights movement capped off with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” as if that marked the end of the struggle. A minority of us truly know what being oppressed means and why the struggle for acceptance is a fight that continues.

I am a believer in “the dream,” not because I am American and not because I am Asian but because I am both. I believe we can live in a country that is tolerant enough to accept our distinct backgrounds and the unique history that we share. No notion embodies more of the core American principles of freedom and the desires of our ancestors than the vision that Dr. King embraced. The fact that it is called “black history month,” does not diminish the overarching theme that I believe it represents. Just because we celebrate the contributions of black Americans does not mean that I don’t have stake in it. Ask me how many times that I have been unfairly judged scrutinized or called names simply because of what I look like and then tell me if you think I can relate.

What is most exceptional about this month is not that it is the shortest of the year and ironically features President’s Day (the celebration of our founding fathers), but that it honors a specific group of individuals who have risen from slavery to the oval office of the White House. Along with these people, I would argue that Hispanics, Asians, women and other minorities be considered as well.

This month honors those historical figures that have persevered and sacrificed in order to keep a heritage intact, and yet it also should celebrate those among us who take the fight forward and advance the cause of equality. Those people are not just people like our President but reach farther. In order for us to expand this month and give it more meaning and more resemblance of the truly diverse heritage that we hold as Americans, we ought to embrace a wider range of people. For every Jackie Robinson there is a Roberto Clemente for every Rosa Parks there is a Sally Ride and for every Barack Obama there is a Daniel Inouye.

It is this last man that I believe best summarizes the point that I wish to make. Read Daniel Inouye’s biography and perhaps you too will see parallels and the black history that is within all of us:

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