Former President Barack Obama delivered 237 words on Black History Month as it began in 2023, addressing Black Americans and all Americans about how to view the history we commemorate in February. Obama begins with an admonishment, warning about how Black History Month should not be treated. It should not be separated out from the rest of American history — it does not exist in a vaccuum.
“Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history—or boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits,” he writes.
Black History Month is not, Obama implies, for endless media reiterations of Martin Luther King‘s famous dream speech or replays of Marian Anderson‘s historic concert on the National Mall, as important as those exceptional events are to the inclusive narrative of American culture.
Obama espouses the notion, instead, that the month exists not just to cite those well-known moments, but to consider and celebrate “the shared experience of all Black Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, whose lives have shaped, challenged, and ultimately strengthened America.”
Obama invokes the famous notion that those ignorant of history are bound to repeat it, and urges all Americans to look honestly at the past. He writes that Black History Month is “about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future.”
About midway through, Obama switches from that first person plural “we” above, which is a we that includes all Americans, to the first person plural “we” of the paragraphs below, which seems to include only the legatees of slavery (“we’re the enslaved people”), collectively cited for their myriad accomplishments from revolutionary times on.
“We’re the enslaved people who quarried the stone to build the White House,” Obama writes, “the soldiers who fought for our nation’s independence, who fought to hold this union together, who fought for freedom for others around the world. We’re the scientists and inventors who helped unleash American innovation. We stand on the shoulders not only of giants, but also countless, nameless heroes who marched for equality and justice for all of us.”
Obama ends with a paragraph that again uses a “we” that includes all Americans — Black or otherwise — who wish to fight against injustice and bigotry of all kinds.
“As long as we keep at it, as long as we don’t get discouraged,” he writes, “as long as we are out there fighting the good fight not just on one day, or one month, but every single day, and every single month, I have no doubt that we’re going to live up to that promise for young people like Clark Reynolds here, and the generations that will follow.”