Black History Month Is For Henry

Anyone that reads this blog regularly knows that I’m not big on hyphenated Americanism. I truly feel that you’re an American unless you’re previously from somewhere else, and have recently gained your citizenship. After some reasonable period, say five years, you should (in my opinion) just shift to being an American.

My identity is just that: American. There’s some Minnesotan, and some Saint Paul in that mix, even, perhaps, some neighborhood loyalty. But it is as an American that I frame my reference to the world.

The exception to that is Black History Month.

I’ve felt, since I first gave it any deep thought, that since whites wrote most of the history books, blacks got short shrift on the ink volume. A number of great accomplishments were either overlooked, or attributed to a white person in error. (Sometimes a malicious act, sometimes not.) But as time went by, it seemed that many of these injustices were being corrected and the histories were reflecting the actual accomplishments of black and white people without regard to color, but by dint of historical fact.

Settled, right? It was until one dinner this past year.

I have been blessed to have a new and great friend in my church. His name is Henry, and if I know him at all, I think he’d be a bit reluctant to see his name in print here today. But this great man of God, and impeccable character, is responsible for the shift in my perception.

What happened at dinner? We were talking about our teen years, and found out that we both participated in public speaking programs in high school. Henry is 10 years older than I am. That means he grew up in Jim Crow Dixie, and I grew up in Minnesota. He graduated from high school when water fountains were still marked by race. I graduated following the tumult of the Civil Rights movement, and had never seen such a thing.

Henry told me about a speech competition where he had a strong competitor. A white kid. They were both very good, but Henry was better. Enough so that after a couple of rounds to break the ties, it was clear that he should advance to the next round. But that didn’t happen. You see, no black kid could beat a white kid in this intellectual pursuit and move on toward the trophy for the state competition. So the white kid moved on, and Henry did not.

Most stories like that are self-serving crap. This one was not. It was conveyed with a sense of joy at the struggle, and a sense of wistful sadness at the inevitable (in 1967 Alabama) result. Henry didn’t dwell on it, we moved on to the next topic and had an excellent meal.

The meal, and the story, changed my outlook. What if instead of Black History Month being perceived of as an alternative history, it instead became an emphasis of lost history, lost opportunities, and lost dreams? The kinds of things that Henry could have brought to the world in a better time, with a fair set of rules for everyone.

Let’s make it just that: an opportunity to explore the rich parts of people, and history, that were subdued and cheated because of racism. The sparkling genius of a young man that was kept under a blanket so as not to upset the apple cart. Celebrate the light that God imbued in each of us, and is equally as brilliant in a white or black set of skin.

Henry did well in life. He’s a respected, educated, successful man. But what if Henry had been afforded his dues in life at age 17/18? Might he not be sitting in the White House? A captain of industry?

I am blessed to know Henry. I blessed to count him as my friend. And if I could travel back in time and change the judge’s decision that day I would. But since I can’t travel time, I will take today to honor my friend and his accomplishments. Realized and dreamed of both.

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Black History Month Is For Henry — 2 Comments

  1. Good stuff. Henry’s generation of Black Americans and those before him should be celebrated. I have a humorous take on the hyphenated celebrations. Apparently there is a Latino Heritage Month. I work at the VA and they emailed all us employees some Latino history about Latino Veterans in the Civil War. Seems they were all Portuguese. Well, I am part Portuguese and at no time in my 53 years was I ever referred to as Latino or Hispanic or even part Latino due to my Portuguese roots. Yet here was the VA telling me we needed to celebrate those Portuguese Latino War Heroes from Civil War days. I am still confused. Granted, on many military documents I was often labeled Timothy Jose Moynihan by those who didn’t want to write out “Joseph.” But my Irish last name never clued people to my meagre Latino roots… which I guess I now have… am… according to the VA… Hmmm… I wonder what Affirmative Action benefits I missed out on all those years? Oh, well. To all my Veteran and Christian friends out there regardless of their hyphenation, this Pseudo-Latino, 16%er Portuguese Irishman American mutt sends blessings and salutations! And have an especially blessed and joyful Black History month, brother Henry! You earned it!

  2. Love this post. So agree, Joseph. Ah, that we could erase the ugliness and celebrate the true joy of achievements in those who excel and those who give their best. God continue to bless Henry in His abundance.