As Prepared For Delivery | February 17, 2015 | Gaborone
Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight to commemorate Black History Month. This is the eleventh year the United States Embassy has partnered with the University of Botswana to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans to the United States and the world.
This year’s theme “A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture” highlights the essential role people of African descent in America have had in shaping world politics and social movements, as well as in music, art, literature and sports. Nowadays, people the world over know African American leaders and their contributions – world leaders like President Barak Obama and Condoleezza Rice; civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks; jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday; writers like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou; the list goes on.
Although African American leaders have always made historical contributions, society has not always recognized these champions. A century ago in 1915, a black American historian named Carter G. Woodson recognized that the contributions African Americans had made to American history had not been recorded. In response, he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and initiated “Negro History Week,” during the month of February. This week later became Black History Month.
This year, we celebrate the transformation that has occurred since the first Black History commemoration 100 years ago. This transformation of society is the product of great effort and tremendous human spirit by people who were confident that their story matters. In this film festival, and throughout this month, we celebrate giant African American leaders, whose names and contributions are known throughout the world. The film Boycott follows the life of Rosa Parks, who by refusing to sit at the back of a segregated bus in 1955, put into motion a series of events that sparked the civil rights movement in the U.S. and who alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed history.
Recent events such as the Ferguson incident have sparked a conversation about contemporary race relations in the United States. Importantly, all members of U.S. society have the right to participate in this peaceful debate. As President Obama has said, “the value of peaceful protests, activism, organizing, is it reminds the society, this is not yet done.”
One of the greatest strengths of democracy is that these conversations occur in the public space. These discussions sometimes air strong views, but they are extraordinarily important. Without debate, a society cannot learn and grow from the experiences of its people. And, only through inclusion, can a society take full advantage of the talents and aspirations of its people.
Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech reminds us that we must continue to strive for a more perfect union, an ideal that is at the bedrock of our nation’s founding. The United States and its people – as with the leaders and people of all nations – must constantly examine our efforts to build stronger, more inclusive societies. We must bring together people from all backgrounds, races, faiths, ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity as one people.
The process of integrating a diverse people brings times of conflict and crisis, as well as great moments of prosperity and progress. One of the greatest triumphs of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States was the development of diverse coalitions that united to fight for the causes and values that are now enshrined in our laws and culture. Business leaders joined civil rights advocates, religious men and women stood beside laborers, and together they reshaped American history.
While we may not all agree on how we achieve a more perfect union, we can all agree that violence against a specific group due to the color of their skin, the basis of their beliefs and ability, or whom they love, is unacceptable. And we can agree that frank discussion of societal concerns makes a difference. As President Obama has said, “we have to lift [issues] up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.”
Tonight we watch the short documentary Barak Obama – His Story, telling the incredible story of a proud African American kid, and his rise to Presidency of the United States. Despite one’s particular political affiliation, the story of Obama teaches us that transformation is always possible – that with hard work and hope, a brighter future lies ahead. In Obama’s own words: “With tremendous strength and abiding resolve, our ancestors – some of whom were brought to this land in chains – have woven their resilient dignity into the fabric of our Nation and taught us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history.” Just imagine the tremendous strides my nation has made from 1955 when Rosa Parks and Dr. King first marched for justice and equality, to the people of the U.S. electing an African American man President, just 50 years later.
In this film festival, we also celebrate men and women whose names are not widely known, but whose stories are essential to the history of the country they helped to change. In the movie 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup, a free African-American man, is kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. This story of cruelty and kindness, desperation and survival, reminds us the ugly truth of slavery and the triumph of human dignity.
During Black History Month we take time to think about our own history and the progress we have made. But we must also acknowledge our unfinished work. Challenges do not lie only in the past. Although racial tensions and challenges in the U.S. linger today, we remain committed to advancing civil liberties for all citizens in the U.S. and worldwide.
From slavery, to the civil rights movement, to the first black President of the U.S. – this history gives us hope for the future. At the heart of America ideals is the belief that regardless of your past or the circumstances of your birth, each person deserves the opportunity to achieve his or her potential.
I would like to personally thank the University of Botswana for their partnership to commemorate Black History Month, and thank the Department of English for their efforts to put on this film festival.