“This February, during Black History Month, I call on the American people to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption and hope. We have never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation that all people are created equal and have the right to be treated equally throughout their lives. We know that it is long past time to confront deep racial inequities and the systemic racism that continue to plague our nation.”
— President Joe Biden on Black History Month, Feb. 1, 2021
Feb. 20, 2021 — During Black History Month, this year’s recognition of the contributions and struggles of African Americans takes place after a summer of racially charged protests across the country, and the ground-breaking election of America’s first female vice president, Kamala Harris, who is of African and Asian descent.
That milestone in the nation’s history was a stark contrast to the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black American whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Department officer captured the attention of the nation.
The two are a sobering juxtaposition representing both the promise of America, and the continuing struggle against systemic racism that has been a continuing thread woven through the nation’s history as it works to understand, mitigate and — eventually — heal on a journey to something better.
The contrasts of those two moments — one of inspiration and the other of horror — sparked action not only among the Black community but among Americans of all ethnicities, genders and economic status. On one hand, the election was a celebration of a barrier being broken; on the other, the summer’s protests were an adamant defiance of a broken system whose barriers of inequity remain in place.
Demonstrations following the killing of Floyd took place across U.S., often pitting protestors on differing sides of the issue directly against one another.
The divide was not only reflected in large cities across the U.S., but also in repeated local demonstrations on street corners at the intersections of Highway 126 and 101 in Florence, which alternately advocated for Black Lives Matter awareness as well as in support of law enforcement.
The issues of cultural imbalance, financial inequity and social justice were the focus of a KXCR Community Radio broadcast last Monday, which included poetry, music and readings from archival letters written by African Americans over the past 150 years. The show was produced by Frances Klippel and the Florence Baháʼí community. It presented a brief glimpse into the Black experience in Oregon and how national debates about race can impact life in Florence.
During the program, the current state of race relations was reflected in presentations by four individuals with unique perspectives on race in America.
The broadcast began with Florence resident Angela Apodaca reading from the letters of Leticia Carson, the only African American woman to receive land in Oregon through the Homestead Acts —a series of land grants that were offered from 1862- 1916 to offer free land to any adult who had never taken up arms against the United States during the Civil War. The 1866 Act specifically included Black Americans among those eligible to apply for land.
The letters were drawn from the archives of the New York Historical Center for Woman’s History and the Oregon Black Pioneers Museum and are available to the public.
Carson’s struggles to overcome the challenges of gender acceptance were poignantly read by Apodaca, who finished her segment of the show by reading a poem dedicated to her grandfather and ancestral lineage.
Next during the broadcast, coastal residents and siblings Robert Montgomery and Annis Cassells talked about “Enough: Say Their Names,” a book they authored with a focus on the African American experience.
Montgomery said the book took shape after the unrest following the racial upheaval of last summer.
He discussed the seven authors that co-authored the book and encouraged listeners to check out the title online.
“This book was inspired and motivated after the death of George Floyd. … There were seven of us that worked on this project and this book, in my opinion, represents those who have died,” Montgomery said. “We are the ones left behind to make a change and a difference for our children and our grandchildren. It was meant to be a starting place for people to have a difficult conversations, for people that want to be awake and understand what is going on and who want to take part in the change that is going on.”
Cassells and Montgomery then read excerpts from the work, with both selecting poems written as tributes to civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, “Good Trouble” and “Anthem of the People.”
Lewis died in July 2020 after serving for 17 terms in the representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. He was one of the most influential civil rights leaders of his time and continues to inspire social justice activists around the world.
Education is central to advancement and improvement within any culture, and this has certainly been one result of the racial tumult shaking America over the last year. The result has been more people than ever before becoming engaged in learning about our collective racial history.
All of the KXCR speakers, and the individuals who inspired them, counted on self-education and the education of others to improve their own conditions and, ultimately, the downtrodden.
Building on this, the program concluded with music as vocalist Maree Beers performed an a cappella version of “Lift every voice,” a song written for Abraham Lincoln.
Beers shared her personal lineage, which is mixed, and spoke of her home and her affinity for music and song.
“I’m just a local Florence gal, and I take a lot of pride in my community here,” she said. “I am also a mother, a musician and I like to work with kids and theater.”
Her stirring rendition was a fitting way to end the KXCR broadcast as “Lift every Voice” has been described, by Beers and others, as the “Black National Anthem.”
Among it’s lyrics:
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won”
Maya Angelou, who wrote some of the most critically acclaimed books on the Black experience, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “And Still I Rise,” once said the goal was not to recognize one or another history as correct but to think about America in a much more integrated and united way.
“Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book — Just U.S. history,” Angelou wrote.
For more information about Black History Month, visit www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov.