Special thanks to Share Our Strength and Food & Society at the Aspen Institute for the opportunity to participate in their Conversation on Food Justice Series. Their efforts to elevate important conversations, support children and families and find solutions to food system challenges and inequities is more important than ever.
Every February, the voices of Black leaders and their contributions to society are elevated in meaningful ways – but there are some that will ask – why is Black history month still relevant in the twenty-first century? An African proverb says, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.” For far too long, the writing of history has been dominated by those who silence Black voices and undervalue Black lives. Black History Month sets time aside to remember the experiences of African Americans.
The past always lives in us individually and collectively.
Historical memory is a two-sided coin: On one side we acknowledge and honor those who use their gifts and talents to serve and contribute to the greater good of a society. On the other side, we must remember painful, systemic efforts to kill, steal, and destroy the lives and property of Black Americans. Healthy societies are those in which people study the past to glean wisdom on how to make positive progress together.
Historically informed public policy advances the mission of addressing the nutritional needs of school age children like the Black Panthers did with their Free Breakfast Program. Over time national and state authorities adopted it and expanded it to include free lunch programs. Similarly, The Biden administration included loan forgiveness payments to Black and brown farmers as part of a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March 2021. The program sought to remedy the documented history of discrimination against minority farmers in the US Department of Agriculture loan and other programs that perpetuated the underdevelopment of nonwhite owned farms. A federal judge has stopped the program charging that it is a problematic solution for addressing a past wrong.
David Muraskin is a lawyer with Public Justice, which represents the National Black Farmers Association. He defended the federal government’s Black farmer loan forgiveness policy. Muraskin wrote, “As the Court recognized, USDA’s discrimination against farmers of color was rampant and severe.” He calls the loan repayment program, “a necessary step towards fixing those harms. To recognize and correct racism is not racist or unconstitutional.” Black History Month provides an opportunity to talk about historical injustice and progressive initiatives to advance the vision of a more perfect union.
Gatekeepers are those who write the history of people, places, and events. If a group doesn’t have a historian to do the research, and publish its history, the stories of those who do not look like them will dominate the pages of history books.
I had the privilege of interviewing historian Earl Lewis who is also a former college administrator and a former president of the Mellon Foundation. Lewis said that a healthy society leverages it diverse talent of human resources. Talent is evenly distributed across communities, but access to opportunities is not. He went on to say, “those in leadership need to think about how to bridge the divide between the dispersal of talent and the access to opportunity.”
For too long, the United States has been unhealthy because of its neglect toward the talents of African Americans. How do you draw upon talent to form an excellent team? Based on the writings of Scott Page among others, the more complex the problem, the greater the return that a diverse team can earn you. If you grew up in a society in which you learn virtually nothing about the historical talents and contributions of African American people, you will not consider calling upon African Americans when it comes time to put your team together. Is your lack of knowledge about Black history holding you back from desiring to become the best you can be? Is your blind spot about Black history keeping you from assembling the best team to solve problems in the fields of healthcare, public policy, food insecurity, diplomacy, higher education leadership, and technology?
If we want to grow individually or collectively, we need to draw from the multitude of life lessons available in Black history. The following are specific ways that we can do this: read articles, books, and graphic novels about African American history every month of the year. Attend related lectures and conferences live or virtually. Share photos, quotes, and links to content and/or events about African American history on your preferred social media platforms. All of us must take up the responsibility to learn and share Black history and the contribution of Black people to the world.
Fred Opie Babson Professor of History and Foodways
Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie is a former world class athlete turned innovative educator, speaker, and author. Dr. Opie is a Babson Professor of History and Foodways, and the author of many books and contributor to anthologies. He is also a blogger and the producer and host of The Fred Opie Show. Dr. Opie has appeared on NPR, BBC Radio, The History Channel, PBS television, and in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Oprah Magazine. To learn more visit FredOpie.com.