Too many Americans still don’t see black history as their ownRoundup
tags: Black History
When I return to Washington, the city where I was born and raised, I see places others do not. At 21st and K streets NW, I see the cheerful home of my great-grandmother, where a World Bank building now sits. On the rapidly gentrifying corridor near First and Bates streets NW, I see the proud brownstone that belonged to one of our city’s first African American kindergarten teachers, my great-aunt. And on 18th and L streets NW, where others see bargains at the Nordstrom Rack, I see the buildings my great-great-great-grandfather Paul Jennings owned when he became a free man after serving as President James Madison’s personal slave.
My understanding of my family’s history and their connections to Washington has influenced my life for as long as I can remember. I know that were it not for Jennings and slaves like him, whose labor enabled Madison to follow his intellectual interests and pursue his role as architect of the Constitution and then as the nation’s fourth president, our country would not be the same.
But how many Americans share that knowledge of our history? How many lawyers and lobbyists working on K Street or students at George Washington University know their neighborhoods were once thriving communities and havens for men such as Jennings?
In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.
We find ourselves in a nation bitterly divided in a year that feels oddly out of step with the time. It would be simplistic to suggest that in understanding our past we will find all of the answers. But I do believe that without deeper reflection and engagement with our history — in all of its complexity — we will not have the foundation of understanding and respect on which progress can be built. Without it, we remain trapped in a vicious cycle powered through complacence and ignorance.
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