As Black History Month comes to a close for the 35th time I am left reinvigorated. The family and I went to Washington DC last week for four days to see the sights. It’s one of those things that I always wanted to do but like so many things in my childhood it was just unaccessible for my family. So on a whim (we booked the hotel and rental car two days before we left) we headed to our nation’s capital to see what we could learn.
In DC we went to many of the Smithsonian museums and they are as interesting and full of knowledge waiting to be explored as you would think they are. I live in NYC, which has many of the best museums in the world, but in DC the great ones are lumped into the National Mall and are 100% free, which makes them more awesome in my book. The Kinsey Collection is on display for a limited time and for me that alone was worth the trip. Seeing the art and history side-by-side in that exhibit moved me. At some point, however, I started getting the blahs. In all the museums the footnotes told little golden nuggets of everything that the U.S. had accomplished in the early days. And how black people were either slaves during those times, under Jim Crow law, or just locked out of much of the success and growth. But then I decided to think about it a different way. We were here from day one, much of the time under the harshest conditions imaginable, and we are still here. My ancestors lived through the darkest times this country has ever seen (in terms of social equality, and of course the Civil War) and they persevered. That tells me that Black History is American History. It’s really that simple, not always shiny, but powerful.
Our black American heroes all fought for something – freedom, education, the right to vote, among other things. It took decades for black inventors to get the credit due them but that didn’t stop them from striving for excellence. What makes the first Black Americans amazing to me is that they often broke the rules. That’s where their success and gains came from. They fearlessly broke the unjust rules that society imposed unfairly upon them and at the same time forced the politicians and power brokers to make changes. Some of the old ways are still live on (even in NYC), but many are gone and that is because so many black people never gave up. They weren’t trying to make history, only do what’s right.
I had two deeply reflective moments on the DC trip that made me feel like I must do more than I currently do. One was when my family and I stood in front of the White House, with the sidewalk all to ourselves, our second night there. It was one of those moments in life where you realize that anything is possible. Where you know that greatness can be achieved if you want it bad enough. All I could think of was that a black president lives with his family in that house and the people of this country voted him in. The second and most profound moment for me was on the last night when we went to the Lincoln Memorial. Walking up the center of those stairs into the shrine of a man who died leading this country through the war that ended slavery was a deeper experience then I thought it would be. That was in part because I stopped on the step where my personal hero Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech and looked out upon the Mall. With my son and wife close by I was inspired to continue on my path, but at the same time to do more. Lincoln and King died for what they believed in, and it was the same thing. They both believed in the United States of America.
The least I can do is live for what I believe in.