There’s a lot of history to savor in this Black History Month, America’s 45th. We’re remembering newly departed icons of entertainment and sport, and celebrating new history makers in government and the arts. All are Black people, of course, though we’re mindful that Black history is American history. Consider these three generations of Americans and their impact on our past and future:
We lost one of the finest actresses of any race last Thursday in Cicely Tyson, who graced the planet for nearly 10 decades, leaving us with immortal performances from the Harlem YMCA to Hollywood. Celebrated also for her ageless beauty, she successfully hid her age until her passing, when, as it turned out, she was 96.
She won three Emmys, two of which were for her title role in the 1974 TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman,” and regularly rejected roles that trafficked in negative racial stereotypes. “I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman,” she told the Entertainment News Service in 1997. “And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me. So, aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”
Amazed and grateful. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Hammerin’ Hank the philanthropist
Many of us remember exactly where we were on April 8, 1974, when Henry Aaron hit his 715th major league home run, eclipsing Babe Ruth as home run king, a title Aaron would hold for more than three decades. He passed away a week prior to Tyson, at 86, with 755 major league home runs to his name (not including a handful in the Negro Leagues). He also had 3,771 career hits (third highest), batted in 2,297 runs (first), and hit at least 20 home runs in 20 different seasons (a record).
Hank Aaron was much more than a stellar athlete. After retirement, he became one of the first Black men in upper-level management as a VP and director for player development for the Braves, the team he played for in Milwaukee and Atlanta for a combined 20 years. He and his wife Billye created the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1994, which awarded hundreds of scholarships to underprivileged youth. The Aarons recently donated $3 million to the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
That’s where he made one of his last public appearances, to obtain his COVID-19 vaccination, setting an example for those who might be reluctant. “I was proud to get the COVID-19 vaccine earlier today at Morehouse School of Medicine,” he posted on Twitter. “I hope you do the same!” (Unfounded rumors blaming his death on the vaccine were debunked by the medical examiner.)
“Mr. Aaron will be remembered for all the home runs he hit,” Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the school’s president and dean, said at his funeral. “But his true legacy is seen in the lives he has changed for the better. He inspired us, motivated us, encouraged us, and set a shining example of what it means to be a good person.”
History in the making
Kamala Harris taking the oath of office of the vice presidency was a swearing in to history. Her presence in the office is indisputably historic and reinforces the core American principle that democracy at every level is open to everyone.
And finally, we’re inspired by a history maker who is just getting started. As the youngest inaugural poet ever, Amanda Gorman captivated the nation with verse as brilliant as her yellow Prada coat:
“We are striving to forge our union with purpose,” she told the Bidens and America. “To compose a country, committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man. And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”
Amen. It feels good to celebrate the 22-year-old Harvard graduate – a published author who has dreamed of becoming president. She’ll bring us more of her distinctive presence and poetry at the Super Bowl.
And though Amanda’s eye is on the future, she too is mindful of the past. As she tells Harper’s BAZAAR:
“I am the descendant of a slave, also named Amanda….. The fact that I can write and create with joy and audacity is a gift that I try to pay forward.”
That she is doing, and making history. American history.
Looking to celebrate Black History Month in your community? Below are a few resources:
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History: https://nmaahc.si.edu/events/upcoming