OPED: Black history is American history

Carla Christopher

I had a wonderful First Friday for Black History Month. In a county not exactly known for its celebration of cultural diversity, I wandered through a racially diverse crowd in downtown York.

York County School of Technology equity coordinator Carla Christopher poses for a photo at I-ron-ic Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in York City. Amanda J. Cain photo

I visited Marketview Arts for a gallery exhibition of African-American women artists curated by Ophelia Chambliss, a nationally known Black woman artist on Governor Wolf’s Historical and Museum Commission, who is based in York. I watched a historical re-enactor guide a fascinated crowd through the Goodrich Freedom Center, a real-live underground railroad house owned by a former slave who became a well-known York business man and turned his home into an underground railroad stop. I learned that William Goodrich is even credited with bringing York its first Christmas tree!

I checked out stylish clothing at Gusa by Victoria, a fashion house owned by a Kenyan immigrant and fashion designer who has dressed the mayor and dozens of local celebrities. Like I do with any of my local adventures, I told a few friends about my stops. I posted pictures on social media. And I resoundingly heard and read “Wow, I had no idea we had that in York.”

Celebrating Black History Month through art

With a sad sigh, I realized that this is what privilege is all about. Not just that we don’t all hear and know about the multi-cultural wonders of York County, but that each and every other person in York County isn’t hungry for them, isn’t starving and desperate for them, isn’t hunting for them at every possible opportunity.

See, I am.

As a Black woman who lives and loves and works in a county that is still 97 percent Caucasian, I sometimes go whole days only seeing a few faces that look like me. I see Pennsylvania Dutch Pot Pie in the gas station. I see Irish-themed flyers for St. Patrick’s Day events and dinner specials plastered across restaurant windows all over town. Loaves of French and Italian bread, still warm from the oven, are waiting for me at the grocery store entrance.

But where is my art? My fashion? My food? My dance? My history? My victories? Where are the schools in the names of my ancestors? The streets named after the families of my people?

Where is the constant daily reminder that my life matters in York County, that my contributions will be valued, because the contributions of my people have been valued?

Too often, I have to go on a hunt to find those things so readily available to my neighbors with other proud heritages.

I do that horrid thing I am told not to do time and time again. I read the comments. In spaces where Black and Brown folks talk about the importance of diversity and representation, we are too frequently told to “quit whining” and “quit being so sensitive”.

I am told that if I don’t like America, I should go back to Africa. In 2017.

But here’s the thing, I love  America. I love the hospitals surgically implanting pacemakers and the traffic controlled by streetlights and the peanut butter sandwiches. African-American inventions.

Moving forward at York Tech

Most importantly, I love my neighbors; the strong, compassionate, helpful, hard-working families and artists and volunteers and young people who make York County what it is. Many of them are African-American, Latino/a, or Asian. I am proud of them. I want my godchildren and my students and the kids that live in my neighborhood to be proud too. I want them to feel invested in making York County better. I want them to be inspired to live and love and work in this county, knowing that they matter. I don’t want them to have to work to find reasons to feel special and supported.

If you are privileged enough to feel safe and seen, if you were lucky enough to learn even a bit about your history and culture in school, if you are blessed enough to see your heritage around your community, I pray you are grateful for all that you have. I hope you appreciate what a gift it is. And I hope that you understand how much it matters that everyone in York has that same chance. And I hope you take advantage of this chance to experience some of the powerful history of pride and achievement that we all share.

Black History is American History.

— Carla Christopher is the Equity Coordinator at York County School of Technology and Regional Coordinator for Put People First – PA, and is on pastoral staff at Heidelberg United Church of Christ in York.