February is Black History Month, carefully scheduled to coincide with the anniversaries of the births of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). In fact, the legacies of these two people show us that Black History Month is not only a time to celebrate African American culture and success, but also to recall a history of oppression and violence.
Lincoln’s role as the president that led the country through the Civil War, preserving the Union and abolishing slavery, is well preserved in the annals of American heroic history. Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. The celebration of these men is a celebration of the first break from systemic violence wrought on black bodies and is therefore steeped in a remembrance of this violence.
In July 1852, Douglass delivered what many consider to be the greatest anti-slavery oration in history— “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
The speech not only demanded an acknowledgement that Independence in itself was an incomplete moment of liberty while slaves remained shackled, but also highlighted how the country had been built on a foundation of slavery. From references to Washington’s slaves to the economic dominance of the triangular trade, Douglass made clear a truth that remains—American history is, in many ways, a black history. Or, perhaps more accurately, American history is a history of violence against black people.
Of course, colonization itself is by its very nature racist. The settling of North America and its subsequent growth in prosperity relied on slavery. First Native Americans were captured and then Africans were imported to increase the labor supply. The extraction of vast resources from the colonies was enacted through the hands of slaves and enabled more trade as rum was exchanged for bodies across the Atlantic. This video by James Campbell shows how the mechanisms of international trade were based in the commodification of African bodies.
Abolition was an historic moment when the explicit conception of black bodies being commodities was dissolved. But even after abolition, black people felt far from free. They continued to suffer violence and social injustice on an astounding scale. Joanne Pope Melish argues, in the following video, that racism was often even embedded in white Americans’ promotion of abolition. She points out that “whites imagined that the abolition of slavery was going to, in some magic way, mean the abolition of black people.”
Slavery was the first part of a long history of oppression and injustice for people of color. Black History Month recalls the pain of this past, as well as its heroes. It challenges nations like the United States to rethink their pasts, and their presents.
For more on slavery in the Americas, look at our full length units: