We are observing Black History Month during historically challenging times. In addition to COVID-19, we are besieged by chronic economic insecurities, exacerbating racial inequalities and serious gender inequities. As a history buff, I usually celebrate Black History Month by sharing little-known and sometimes unknown facts about Black Americans' contributions to the greatness of America. But circumstances this year give rise to some deeper introspections.
The majority whip's offices in the U.S. Capitol include a room named in honor of Abraham Lincoln, whose February birth date and that of Frederick Douglass are the reasons Black history is celebrated in February. The Lincoln Room is located just off Statuary Hall, which was once the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives where Lincoln served for one term.
Two years ago, I invited Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise to join me in the Lincoln Room - which he previously occupied - as I honored Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls for their roles in helping Lincoln preserve the Union, by hanging their portraits in that room. They were both born enslaved. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by dressing in a seaman's uniform and carrying false papers. He made his way to Rochester, New York, and became a famous abolitionist, prolific author and - in the opinion of many - the greatest American orator ever.
Robert Smalls escaped slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, during the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate ship and surrendering it to Union troops. He was rewarded with his freedom. Smalls amassed great wealth, served in the South Carolina state legislature and the U.S. Congress and became - in my opinion - the most consequential South Carolinian ever.
I have never seen any indication that Douglass ever traveled south of Washington, D.C., or that Smalls traveled north of our nation's capital, but at a critical point during the Civil War, together they met with President Lincoln and received his blessing to recruit Blacks into the Union Army. Through Douglass' efforts in the North and Smalls' efforts in the South, more than 180,000 Black men joined the cause. The influx of those Black soldiers helped turn the tide that resulted in victory for the Union.
In light of current events, I feel compelled to mention another of my favorite Black History Month lessons drawn from the lives of Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer. Unlike Douglass and Smalls, Edison and Latimer had dissimilar backgrounds and life experiences. Edison was a White Midwesterner. Latimer, who lived in Boston, was the son of former slaves. Despite their differences, they both were inventors with penchants for entrepreneurship.
Edison is recognized as the most prolific American inventor of his time and is credited with having invented the light bulb, but he could not stop it from quickly burning out. Indeed, one of America's most celebrated inventors realized that he was going to need help. Since there is record of Edison capitalizing off racial stereotypes that degraded African-Americans, he would have had to step out of his comfort zone to team up with Latimer, who created a longer-lasting carbon filament that perfected Edison's invention. Latimer wrote the first book about electric lighting and installed public lighting in several cities here and abroad.
Black History Month takes on deeper meaning this year. President Joe Biden released a statement calling on Americans "to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption and hope." Those words are a recognition of the multifaceted moment in which we find ourselves.
Getting beyond this moment and finding "reckoning, redemption and hope" may require getting outside of our comfort zones. We may feel safe and secure remaining inside our bubble interacting only with those who look and think like us. But doing so risks living in echo chambers and insular existences. It prevents the taking of bold and courageous steps like Douglass and Smalls did and respecting the experiences of others like Edison and Latimer did.
Congress has become a clear example of this entrenchment. We are being hampered and undermined by a deadly pandemic, inept leadership and deep ideological divides. America needs bold, innovative solutions, and Americans want leaders who are willing to step outside their comfort zones.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is a Sumter native and represents South Carolina's 6th Congressional District. This op-ed was originally published by CNN on Feb. 23.
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