Observations of Black History Month, which begins today, will no doubt pay special homage to two events celebrating milestone anniversaries this year: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These seminal developments in American history fundamentally reshaped the nation, and thus it makes sense for them to be the chief focus this month. But they should not be the only one.
The crowning achievements of two remarkable men, President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King, are inspirational, but fall short of the power found in the incredible stories of the everyday African-American family.
As evidence, we need look no further than President Obama – who used the Lincoln and King Bibles to take the inaugural oath last month – and the chosen title for his 1995 memoir: “Dreams from my Father.” Mr. Obama’s story is remarkable in many ways, just as the backstories of many African-American families are.
My dreams come from the same place. One of my family’s stories is of my great-grandparents’ admiration for a president and the fulfillment of their hopes for their descendants. In many ways, this story has guided my life’s journey.
The story begins when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt then ascended to the nation’s highest office, and arguably his first act of courage as president occurred that same year, on Oct. 16. On that night, at the personal invitation of President Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington walked out of the Blue Room of the White House and dined with the president and first lady, marking the first time an African-American had ever done so.
Much of the still-segregated nation was in an uproar when word of the dinner was made public. The US senator from South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that [n-word] will necessitate our killing a thousand [n-words] in the South before they learn their place again.”
Elsewhere in South Carolina, however, sharecropper Will and homemaker Annie Johnson were so inspired by the president’s gesture of equality that they named their son (my grandfather) Theodore Roosevelt Johnson in his honor.
Though they could not vote in Jim Crow South Carolina, Will and Annie wanted their children to live in an America of liberty and opportunity for all that President Roosevelt’s action seemed to represent.
My grandfather was a minister, and he and his wife, Louisa, named their fourth son Theodore Roosevelt Johnson, Jr, again in hopes that their children would have the opportunity America promised, but that the racially charged 1950s did not allow.
Just over a year ago, I, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III, walked out of the Blue Room of the White House and met the president and first lady. One of my family’s many generational hopes and dreams was finally realized once I shook hands with President Obama and spoke their names in the halls of the White House; the same space where President Roosevelt inspired two proud black people to take a leap of faith for the American promise.
This is my black history, and my American story. It indelibly binds me to a history that continues to live through me, and is not contained in an annual month-long study of facts and speeches.
Stories such as these are at the core of Black History Month. We need not look far. When Americans really reflect on their families and communities, they will recognize the contributions of all African-Americans, not just those who are seen as famous or heroic. The fact that their own stories aren’t as well known or recognized makes their inspiration, purpose, and achievement more tangible.
Every single African-American has a number of personal testimonies to contribute to this national month of remembrance. The many challenges and triumphs of our family members weave an intricate fabric chronicling the richness of the African-American experience.
This is not to say that we should ignore the great people, moments, and accomplishments in black history. It is vitally important that the nation recognize the importance of pivotal moments and transcendent personalities that serve as milestone markers for the epic of journey that is American history.
But the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation is not just found in the man Lincoln or his courage; it is also found in the millions of slaves that deserved their freedom – and all of their descendants. The power in the “I Have a Dream” speech is not just in Martin Luther King Jr. or his divine oration, but also in the hope and struggle of millions who inspired it in the first place.
We should not forego the average stories in every African-American family – indeed, every American family – for the once-a-century events and leaders in our history. We are our own Black History, a mesh of the dreams we’ve each received from our forefathers and mothers.
Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III is an active-duty Navy officer, writer, and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. His work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, NBC’s The Grio, and The Hill. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government.