As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I would like to invite us all to consider what African- American history means to our country, to our community, and to each of us as individuals.
For me, there are many touchstones, but often I think of a simple, heartbreaking statement I heard nearly three years ago: “They’re not going to let him win.” So I was told by an elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman who barely cracked open her front door in snowy Iowa when I knocked. I was there to help organize support for an African-American senator from Illinois who was running for President. Perfectly poised, the woman was impassive as she spoke past the chain still fastened to her door, maintaining the dignity that she had seen denied to so many others. For she remembered too well a time when water fountains and buses were a canvas for oppression, when the word “separate” drained all meaning from the word “equal.”
My generation is marked by different memories. When we think of struggle and injustice, we also remember a great man who taught us to dream. We remember walking arm-in-arm with an ever-growing community whose voices told a story of freedom, from neighborhood coalitions to the courtroom. I am a child of this time – my mother raised my sister and me in Oakland amidst marches for racial justice and equality.
When I first ran for office, there were those who said “no,” who said: “it’s too difficult,” or, “it’s not your turn.”
But I responded yes, the time is now and the time is right. And all across the country, my voice is just one part of a chorus of leaders committed to making that basic truth – that all men and women are created equal – more evident.
Soon, our children will know only a world in which a Black man named Barack Obama stood in the eyes of a nation and spoke these singular, American words: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” For all of the challenges we still face, our young people today are more free, and less marked by the past, than any generation before. And that makes our history all the more important, for these children will soon write the next chapters in our history of struggle, of redemption, of ever-growing justice. We do not know the history they will write. However, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, freedom is earned with each generation. In this renewal, it is not only history that helps us understand where we are today; where we are today also helps us revisit our history. And so, on a cold day in January 2008, I saw the elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman step into a caucus room in Iowa, joining cause with a generation of young people who had never learned that they could not do something. She re-wrote part of her story that day, and ours.
Make no mistake, there is much work still left to do. From our criminal justice system, to the mortgage crisis, to health care, to education, we face challenges that demand the courage and innovation of the civil rights generation. These challenges are more diverse than ever. But so are the solutions – today, more than ever before, we can empower people to work together across boundaries towards positive change, real solutions, and the promise of our great nation. And that must be our work, not only to honor history but to make history.
As I reflect and celebrate Black History Month, I recognize that it is, in some ways, none of those things. It is not only Black – it is the history of our country and of our world, it is all of ours. It is not only history – it is a story that we are still writing, it is our future. And it is not only a month – let us make it a reminder for every day, every week, and every month.
Kamala Harris is District Attorney of San Francisco.
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