African Americans: The Canary in the Mine

Through conditioning and experience, especially after age 35, African Americans, almost to a person, understand the United States from a different perspective than other Americans. W.E.B. Du Bois described it as living in two worlds, having two voices. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois said that African Americans were neither African nor American, but both.

That has held true throughout the history of the United States. For example, Black parents continuously advise their children to suspend reality and believe in the nation’s lofty ideals, despite the routine and systematic disadvantages and inequities endured. The result is the uncanny capacity of African Americans to assess the “state of the Union.” Frederick Douglass’ speech on July 5, 1852; the reflections of Langston Hughes’ Man in the Street “Jesse B. Semple”; Sojourner Truth’s declaration Ain’t I a Woman? ; and Mary Church Terrell’s far reaching observations are just a few examples of Black truth-sayers cutting to the core of home-grown issues. They weighed in and assessed the social, political, cultural and economic problems affecting the United States of America, frequently with both brutal honesty and biting sarcasm. Their response to any of these issues could just as well have been, “I thought you knew…”

Viewing life from the bottom rungs of the ladder, African Americans were described by activist songwriter and composer Curtis Mayfield as “carrying the weight for every got dang soul.” (The got dang song in New World Order) Ordinarily African Americans already know before the rest of the nation or world whether we are in for hard or good times. The life conditions of African Americans is a perennial bellwether. Some would argue that changing fortunes among African Americans are symptoms all will eventually experience, as surely as the old and injured can feel when rain is on its way.

African Americans are a measure of how well this nation adheres to its principles and ideals. From the beginning with no regard to nationality, British or American, Africans supported whichever side promised them freedom and liberty during the Revolutionary War. It is not surprising that Crispus Attucks, a descendant of Africans, was the first person to die during the Boston Tea Party, the protest marking the outbreak of the American Revolution. Blacks are always the first to know, the first to pay the real price – an following the accepted pattern the first character to die in a movie; often also the first to suffer because they have little or no buffer of protection. It was Africans and their children, much to the alarm of Europeans and their children, who unconditionally accepted and supported the universal application of the concept of the inalienable rights of each person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

African Americans have applied pressure through courts, lobbying, protest and demonstration for laws and legal decisions in support of civil rights. In addressing and responding to these demands made by African Americans, the United States of America has expanded the definition of citizenship (any person born on US soil) and the rights citizenship guarantees: equal access to public services and accommodation, fair housing, voting, education, travel, marriage, equal compensation, property ownership and fair trial. These clarifications are evolving alongside challenges that continue to this day. The historical denial of civil rights and the retrenchment of the status quo against equal opportunity derive from a long legacy of racial and economic disparity in this country. Black people challenged judicial decisions and laws that they determined did not live up to the nation’s ideals: Supreme Court decisions on The Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott,  Plessey vs. Ferguson (separate but equal), and Brown vs. Board of Education are famous examples.

After what Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (1863) described as a span of four score and seven years, with its back against the wall, and hundreds of thousands of its young dead and dying on battlefields, the United States reluctantly committed itself to ending slavery. However, within 25 or 30 years, that commitment was being reversed, stymied or undone because old habits die hard. The canary who cried loudly and clearly about the unraveling of freedom was an African American woman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a voice of protest against threats to snuff out freedom in its infancy – one in a long line of truth tellers informing all of the status of democracy and liberty in this nation.

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