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How the contributions of black people shaped America

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

Black History Month is for us all. It was created because our history books, our media, our entertainment industry — until recently — has ignored the great contributions of black people to our society. Honestly, I love Black History Month because black girl magic and black boy joy are real and amazing.

click to enlarge tara-dowd.jpg

Besides Native people and Native culture, I have been most influenced in my life by black people and their culture. If you were to ask me who is my favorite author is right now, I would probably say Louise Erdrich or Leslie Marmon Silko, both Native authors. But I'm just as likely to say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ta-Nehisi Coates, both black authors. I'm pretty sure that the book Roots by Alex Haley, which I read during the summer before fourth grade, has been a lodestar in developing my sense of what America was and is.

Hands down, I'm most musically influenced by black artists. From Michael Jackson to Rihanna, and from Chubby Checker to Lauryn Hill — The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is life. Rap and R&B have been very influential in my life. I was 14 when I attended my first concert. My parents could only afford to buy one ticket, so I attended the Boyz II Men concert all by myself. I loved it.

This doesn't even begin to cover the ways in which many black people have mentored me, given me advice, shared their life with me, given me camaraderie, friendship and loyalty. I have personally and professionally benefited from so many amazing black people in my life.

I can't imagine American life without the beauty, artistry, strength, intelligence, resiliency and power of black people. Their influence is so ingrained in my identity as an American, it isn't possible to separate their contributions. And I certainly don't want to.

But I think our society as a whole has done a horrible job at honoring the contributions of black people to the United States. In my memory, I didn't learn about many historic black people besides the few they let into the history books: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass, to name three. But we are missing out on so many great black people who have helped to make America great. From the slaves who built the White House to the Tuskegee Airmen to Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — the women the major motion picture Hidden Figures is about.

Locally, Spokane has benefited from the contributions of black people. Our first — and only — black mayor, Jim Chase, was known for caring about youth and getting them involved in their government. His dedication to youth led to the inspiration for the Chase Youth Commission. We also have the Maxey Legacy, started by Carl Maxey, a Spokane-grown lawyer who fought for human rights and justice. His sons, Bill and Bevan, became lawyers and are carrying out their father's mission of justice for all.

Many people wonder why there has to be a Black History Month. It's because we don't include their influence, power, and contributions to our history and our society — at least not in an authentic and total inclusion in our historic psyche. Until that's the case, we need a month once a year to celebrate, learn about, and honor the contributions of black people. As a Native woman, I am honored to celebrate with my black brothers and sisters.

And so should you, because Black History Month is all of us. ♦

Tara Dowd, an enrolled Inupiaq Eskimo, owns a diversity consulting business and is an advocate for systemic equity.

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