A Brief [and Incomplete] History of African Americans
By Takia McClendon
This blog post was originally a private email to a white colleague seeking a deeper understanding of what she could do to fight racism. I thought that it was important to have a better historical context before she could do more meaningful and purposeful work. Because it was meant to be a private email, it was all written from memory (on my cell phone) and has not been fact checked for accurate dates. Instead, the point of the email was to focus on ideas, themes and historical events that shape the black experience that we know today.
If I could write a book or teach a class on the topic, I would. But here’s my best explanation, from my perspective to understand what’s going on and why. I’ve also included some books, podcasts, movies, etc. to tackle next.
Slavery — 1920s
Let’s start with slavery. Most people understand what happened here but for most black people in the United States, this was the start of a traumatic experience that would rip our families apart, strip us of our history and create a deep cycle of poverty that would last for hundreds of years.
During the slave trade, Africans were split up and put on ships in horrible conditions. They were shipped off to Europe, North and South America and other places. They were forced to work fields, farms and perform labor without pay. In the United States, this lasted for about 400 years.
Now to really understand what that means, you have to use your imagination:
⁃ White people in the US had a (at least) 400 year head start to build wealth, start businesses, claim property, get educated, etc.
⁃ A lot of the successful companies that we know today, were built on the backs of black slaves but they had no access to that wealth
⁃ Also, black families were literally ripped apart. Black women were victims of rape. Black men were beat for looking at white women.
Then when slavery “ended”, blacks were freed but there were laws put in place that blocked them from gaining property, from getting jobs, from politics, etc. so we’re looking at another 50–60 years after slavery ended with little opportunity.
- Here’s a video on Reconstruction, the 10ish years after slavery
Also, I used quotations because even when slavery legally ended, because slaves couldn’t read the newspaper (learning to read was a crime) they didn’t know they were free so slave owners took advantage of that.
Now let’s move on to the 1920s and 30s. You get segregation, separate but “equal”. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Black people were victims of public lynchings and were intimidated by whites. Are you familiar with the story of Emmett Till? Tulsa Riots? If not, familiarize yourself with these events.
Next, let’s focus on the Civil Rights Movement. That’s when you see the rise of people like MLK and Malcolm X. If you’re not familiar with it, read MLK’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”.
During this period, black people were fed up. Separate but “equal” was still going strong but it’s clear that equal wasn’t a reality.
Oh, and all the soldiers coming home from WW2? Black soldiers did not get the GI Bill. So if you have a relative who served in that war they had access to free education, etc. my relatives most likely did not: WW2 Veterans Benefits
In 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ended segregation in the classroom but shit hit the fan because white people did not want black children in school with their children. See Remember the Titans. Even though the law was passed, it just created more tension.
So we’re talking the 1950s and 60s (not that long ago) and black people STILL didn’t have equal access to education, jobs, voting, home ownership, or lunch counters. You saw a lot of riots and fighting. Have you seen Selma? Shows one of the most infamous moments in US history in Selma — Bloody Sunday. Black and white protesters were peacefully marching and were attacked by police on live TV. You could probably just google the footage. Understanding these notions set the stage for what’s going on today.
Now, let’s just stop for perspective. Our grandparents and parents were alive for this. This means white grandparents had the ability to safely go to and from work, get an education, plan a family, etc. while my grandparents did not. When we talk about access to wealth, as recent as the 1960s, black people didn’t have a shot.
So after about 100 years after slavery ended, black people were still systematically being left out of economic opportunities. Banks literally refused to sell us homes in certain neighborhoods (more on that below).
Okay so in the 70s and 80s, because we have poor access to housing, you see the rise of the projects. These are low income, government subsidized high rise housing projects. I think I’ve said this before, but this is where shit hits the fan…again.
You see an introduction of crack in black communities and drug use and dealing are on the rise. Now check this out, crack is a cooked up variation of cocaine. They are the same drug except cocaine is more expensive and mostly used by wealthy white people while crack was used by low income black people.
- Can you guess which drug carried longer, harsher jail sentences?: Crack vs. Powder Cocaine: One Drug Two Penalties
A lot (not all) of our fathers were incarcerated for drug possession. If you ever wonder why black people get upset at the response to today’s opioid problem, it’s because of the way we were treated during the crack epidemic. I like to think that we know more about drug use now and that’s why it’s seen as a public health crisis and not that it’s because many of the victims of opioid overdoses are white. I digress…
So again, we have over 400 years of slavery, 100 years of fighting for equal rights. So that brings us to the 90s/2000s. You see some progress but mostly, black people are just kind of “content” and just “making it” by. The devastation of globalization and its impact on black wealth is insane.
Look at a neighborhood like Nicetown in Philly. Once the factories were abandoned, that area became one of the poorest sections of the city. You saw this happen in places like Pittsburgh and other “steel towns”. So you have in some areas, entire neighborhoods that have been victims of generational poverty.
I’d be lying if I said that things didn’t get better for some people because they did. But that’s a smaller narrative.
- African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs
- Race, not just poverty, shapes who graduates in America — and other education lessons from a big new study: Race, Not Just Poverty, Shapes Who Graduates in America
- Now, as we move onto where we are today I’d look into the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and other unarmed black people to understand why everyone is so upset: A Timeline of Unarmed Black Men Killed by Police
What happens next?
I wrote all this but I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that black people in the US are still victims of systemic racism in almost every sector from healthcare to the workplace. White allies need to speak out on injustices, have the uncomfortable conversations with their family members and friends, etc.
If you want to continue to learn more, which I know you do, check out some resources below:
Recommended Readings, Videos & Podcasts
- The Problem with All Lives Matter [Video]
- Understanding Bias and White Privilege
- To My White Friends Who See Tragedy in the Black Community and Say Nothing, Make it Personal
- Inequality and Poverty Were Destroying America Well Before Covid-19
⁃ White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
⁃ Medical Apartheid
⁃ The Color of Law
⁃ How to Kill A City
⁃ 13th on Netflix (Watch this TODAY) if you can
⁃ When They See Us on Netflix
⁃ The Opt In (this is actually recorded in Philly)
⁃ 1619 Project
⁃ Still Processing
⁃ Dear White Women
Remember, this is not a complete or comprehensive history. The events, people and ideas that are not mentioned here are important and worth exploring in further detail. My hope is that you will continue to search for answers and learn more about how African Americans in this country have been, and continue to be impacted by racism.