Letter: African American history in the West
With the current civil unrest unfolding around the nation, it may be easy to think how do these events affect our community, a small town with a majority white population?
Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis and Atlanta are just a few of the cities that are experiencing waves of heightened civil unrest due the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Police brutality is just one system of racism that permeates the U.S today and affects all of us.
We need to ask ourselves, what does our community, a region with a relatively low black or African American population, have to do with the fires and peaceful protests?
Discovering the history of our particular region in the West can make the national news seem more relevant to our lives in Steamboat Springs.
A local initiative, in lieu of starting a conversation around race and African American history in the West, is an upcoming reading list of “consciousness about race” curated by Bud Werner Memorial Library. It will be available online in the coming week.
For more resources beyond the local collection, the African American Intellectual History Society curated the “Charleston Syllabus” and includes books for all readers, films and poetry in order to contextualize race relations in the U.S. It is available at aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus.
Reading these books and resources can provide context of the region we live in and why our thoughts and actions can affect the larger community around us.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson provides a compelling history of the Great Migration, when six million black citizens left the American South for better lives in midwest and western cities. For many families, cities offered a community, kinship and better economic opportunities for those who left a life of sharecropping and prejudice.
The rural West was unwelcoming to black Americans fleeing the South. The majority of white settlers in the West barred black people from voting, serving on juries, testifying in court and using their rights as citizens. “(The West) was an escape from systematic violence and the more intense form of hatred- but hardly a new America (“The Black West”).” Those who did go West, although few in number, mobilized and over time would send representatives to state and national conventions to advocate for their rights.
However, this is just a part of black history in the West and an even smaller portion of African American history as it relates to today’s unfolding civil unrest. Historian Anna-Lisa Cox captures this sentiment well, “(History is) not just one upward trajectory. It’s more like an old river that winds back on itself and gets lost in swamps and then goes forward a little bit, then winds back.”
By reading and working toward an understanding of race in U.S. history and the West, we can work as a community to be more educated about the context of racial unrest and how we can be a part of the solution of a more equitable and just society.
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