I have a confession to make: I know very little about the African-American experience.
There. I’ve said it.
Just over fourteen percent of the United States population self-identifies as African-American and the majority of my knowledge comes from Alex Haley’s Roots and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Maybe it is because of my age. Or where I was reared. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. In a suburban community whose racial diversity did not include blacks.
But that is no excuse.
It’s no excuse because as a member of ethnic/religious minority, I should know better. I should know how much minority members yearn for others to know their story. I should know better because our individual oppressions ought to be a point of commonality. I should know better because I am a better American when I know the narratives of my neighbors.
Our Torah, this very week in fact, goes into great detail about the boundaries for owning and releasing slaves. Though the Biblical understanding of slavery varies radically from the subjugation and oppression by the slave owners in the Black South, it can serve as a catalyst to search deeper into the realities of slavery in the United States.
On the advice of a fellow book-lover, I picked up The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Migration, a recent historical study on the migration of blacks from the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast, and West between the years of 1915 and 1970.
Did you know that there was not just one wave of black migration in the United States, but two of them?
I am a highly-educated person. Or so I thought. But my education is clearly lacking as I’m still in the first few chapters and have already exceeded the sum total of my knowledge of atrocities in the post-Civil War South.
I am drawn to the story with both a reluctance and intense curiosity of a reality that stands far outside my own experience. My naiveté and ignorance shame me as I read, from the comfort of my secure societal position, of those who were treated in ways that are in direct conflict with my image of a unified nation. Perhaps because though America was plagued by a violent Civil War, the country seemed to learn very little in the process.
It does not escape my notice that my self-motivated education comes during Black History Month. There are some who would argue that Black History IS American History and, therefore, does not need a designated month. There is some validity to that position. But sometimes it’s in the marketing. And if setting aside time to focus on those stories that are unknown to us is what will bring those stories back into our collective conversation, then so be it. Such attention can serve only to open dialogue and cultivate understanding.