FORT BLISS, Texas — More than 80 years ago, Carter G. Woodson, an African American educator and historian founded “Negro History Week” as an opportunity to bring to light the important roles and contributions of black people in the creation of this nation. In 1976, the one-week celebration was expanded to Black History Month, celebrated each February, during the birth-month of two important figures who fought for the abolition of slavery: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Here at Fort Bliss, the tradition continued with the Team Bliss Black History Month Celebration, hosted by the 212th Fires Brigade, at the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center, Feb. 22. The special theme for the celebration was “Black Women in American Culture and History.”
The keynote speaker, Dr. Sandra Braham, framed her speech by suggesting, “Despite significant gains, [African American women] are stuck on the tarmac and awaiting invitation.”
Braham is the Chief Executive Officer of the Young Women’s Christian Association El Paso del Norte Region and the 2011 George A. McAlmon Jr. Labor and Civil Rights Award recipient. She described a time in African American history where record numbers of black women were taking college courses and more than 900,000 small businesses are owned by black women, but according to a recent poll from the Washington Post, fifty percent of black women still believe racism is a big problem in the country and they fear being discriminated against or unfairly stereotyped.
“We have arrived but we find ourselves stuck on the tarmac as we are often misunderstood. We are often misunderstood and accused of being angry -- when we are intense or direct,” said Braham.
The “stuck on the tarmac” metaphor describes being unable to move forward or make headway without permission to embark or an invitation to the table. Specifically, the dinner table. Braham recounts her personal experience with trying to make the business and personal connections necessary to help raise funds for her non-profit organization. She said during her tenure, there have been more than 80 different people on the board, and of that number, only six have ever had her over for dinner and four have had her back more than once.
“Are we that different? Are we that different on the outside that we don’t think about including each other at our dinner tables?” Braham said. “My challenge to you is to invite somebody different to your dinner table, because it’s important to our country, it’s important to the future of our nation.”
Braham said it is pivotal to get beyond our own prejudices in order to navigate the historic changes taking place within the country as it evolves beyond the Industrial Revolution and into the Information Age.
“It is going to take a very different mindset, a different type of leader, a leader who is ready for a hero’s journey,” said Braham. “It is going to take a leader who is not afraid to bring people who make him uncomfortable to the table because it is in those collisions, and in that chaos that we are going to come out with the extreme creativity and innovation that we need to come up with the solutions to move this country forward.”
The event also featured an extensive Civil Rights Movement-era memorabilia display belonging to local veteran and El Pasoan, Dan Webb. He said there are more than 3,000 pieces in his private collection and more than 98 percent of it was displayed during the celebration.
“Every year that I can bring people together to enjoy the celebration of our black history, overwhelms me and I’m very excited about that,” said Webb. “I think it’s important I share to the world this collection and those who don’t know about what transpired during the Civil Rights Movement and black history. I have to share those leaders who contributed to our nation and who paved the way for me.”
At 12, Webb met Dr. Martin Luther King when he was speaking at his local church, and he described being profoundly touched by what he heard, “if one person is denied their basic rights, we all suffer.” Webb has been passionate about civil rights and the spirit of volunteerism ever since.
Webb said Black History Month is important because it draws attention to just how far the fight for equality has come. He points to the success of the Civil Rights Movement in having a black president and at Fort Bliss, a black commanding general.