I came to the United States in 1977 as a student and ultimately settled down here, becoming a citizen along the way. So 2017 was a milestone of sorts for me – 40 years of living in the United States. Through these years I learned a lot about the U.S. Constitution as well as about American history, culture, and politics.
Yet, 2017 was a year of important new learning for me. In September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors to the public. Construction of the museum was authorized during the George W. Bush administration, and President Bush himself was present at its inauguration. Very fittingly, the inauguration was presided over by the first African American president, Barack Obama.
In 2017 I got an opportunity to visit the museum. I spent half a day in the galleries that walked me through the history of slavery in North America, starting in the 15th century, all the way to the civil rights movement, and culminating in the election of Obama. While I can’t say I saw anything on that trip that I wasn’t somewhat aware of, what I saw and learned left an impression on me that will last a lifetime. I went back a second time and spent another four hours further learning about the history of Blacks in America and their struggles over many generations.
For the first time, I really understood the economic underpinnings of slavery in America. How the labor and toil of these enslaved people, brought forcibly from Africa, enriched the European nations and then the wealthy aristocracy in America; how every type of prejudice and made-up reasoning over generations was used to continue to enrich those who benefited from this arrangement.
I understood how slavery, and consequently racial prejudice, has been at the formation of our own modern republic. Importantly, it helped me understand how these attitudes continue to permeate the politics and public policy of the United States even today.
I also gained an appreciation for the resilience of African Americans and their culture. How they have managed to survive, and so many of them to thrive and to accomplish great things in arts, sports, and so many other fields, in the face of perhaps the most systematic brutalization and vandalization of a people witnessed in the past few centuries.
All of a sudden, many other pieces started to fall in place for me: Why is it that so many Americans have a very negative attitude towards the government helping those of its citizens that may need help? Driven by prejudice against the “undeserving Blacks” receiving government assistance. No such attitude exists when, for example, poor whites are in need of government aid to overcome their opioid addiction. I haven’t heard any talk of “personal responsibility” in that case.
Why is it that so many states refused to expand Medicaid, as dictated by the Affordable Care Act? Again, prejudice against helping “undeserving Blacks” who represent a disproportionate number of low-income citizens.
People like me who came to the U.S. as students and became part of a minority group (in my case Asian American) have greatly benefited from the civil rights struggles led by African American leaders in the past. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who led the civil rights movement and paved the way for our acceptance into this country.
Reading books and essays by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates further educated me about the struggles of African American communities and what they continue to go through. It is said that the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice. History also teaches us that the arc can indeed be very, very long. After all, it took more than three generations after the abolition of slavery for Blacks to truly gain their rights in our electoral system, and for the Civil Rights Act to be passed. And in many places in our country, this battle continues today.
As I stood in front of a photographic display at the African American Museum showing Barack Obama’s inauguration with millions in attendance, a lady turned to me and said, “It seems we will have to fight the civil rights battle all over again.”
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published in August 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, D.C.