What does African American History Month mean to me?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Vernon Butler
  • 86th Airlift Wing command chief
That is the question I was asked to write about. The first thing that came to my mind was "What an honor," followed by "What a privilege." I have always felt it is critically important to celebrate one's heritage and to know American history...African American history. I have worked very hard for most of my adult life to meet this personal goal, and in my mind American History and African American history are one and the same.

Then, the fear set in. What do I say? How do I get my message across? After a few deep breaths I thought to myself, maybe I should write about one of the great American leaders of the past, like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; or perhaps one of America's literary powerhouses of today such as Maya Angelou, or maybe even talk about some of the numerous accomplishments of our current Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama.

While all of this was going through my mind, and before I started down that path, something hit me: I realized that every American has a story and every American, in their own way, contributes to making history every day. I feel what is most important is that we embrace, honor, and celebrate the accomplishments of "everyday folk and their influences." The people we live, work, and play with deserve homage and all that becomes our unique history shapes our perspective on a daily basis. So, that is what I plan to write about.

What does African American History month mean to me? It means celebrating diversity, it means recognizing the accomplishments of all Americans who helped to create and sustain this great nation of ours. I also believe it sends a message to not limit ourselves. Yes, February is African American History month, but we should celebrate everyone, every day and respect and appreciate our differences.

I did not have to look hard to find American history...African American History. Influences are all around me. I recall, as a very young man, being introduced to a book of poetry titled "I Am The Darker Brother." That title is actually a line in one of the poems in the book, "I Too Sing America" written by one of my favorite authors, Langston Hughes. I have always loved reading poetry and still enjoy it today, but at the young age of 17 or 18, my focus was on "darker," and the negative connotations that are associated with that word. It was not until a few years later that I came to understand two important points about that title: 1) "darker" just meant different...not better not worse...just different, and 2) the word that I should have been focused on was "brother," because in God's eyes we are all brothers and sisters. Understanding that line, and moreover the poem, helped to change my thought process and it taught me several lessons. It taught me to be proud of who I am , to never put myself down, to always count my blessings, and that no matter what today looks like, there is always hope for a brighter tomorrow, and most important it taught me to know my worth and to appreciate the worth of those around me.

Another example was my father. He made history every day in my eyes. He served in the Air Force for 22 and a half years, participated in two wars, served through some pretty trying times in our nation, and helped to mould and build the foundation of the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1973. He was a rock solid example of a great American...a great African American.

He passed in 1985, less than two years after I enlisted, and never got to attend a single promotion ceremony for me; however, what he taught me through his example as God fearing man, as a father, husband, and not to mention the countless doors his service opened for me and other Americans was phenomenal. He was a very proud African American man, well respected by his peers, and his example of strength remains to be my testimony today.

To highlight how everyday friends can and do create history, I would like to briefly talk about a friend I have known for almost 30 years. To me she is just Rena - you know, the person that has some dirt on you, so you try not to make them too mad. A person who will tell you what you don't want to hear, but you know it is what you need to hear. Even though we don't see each other that often, to me she is my best friend. To others, she is a "Black Expressions Best Selling Author," who has written and published seven novels. Heck, her newest book even talks about Ramstein. The level of effort that it takes to be a success in that industry is extraordinary. Rena mentors youth and speaks with college students about her craft, instilling hope and motivation. She is making African American history every day. No, her work is not one of Oprah's books of the month and her novels have not yet made the New York Times top 10 list, but you know what? They don't have to - and my father did not need to be a Command Chief, in order to make and be a part of American history...African American History.

Get to know and appreciate the people around you. Everyone has a story, so embrace what we all bring to the table. Reading helps us to understand our differences and change perspectives. One of my favorite quotes is by Alice Walker and she said "Every small positive change we can make in ourselves repays us in confidence in the future." I challenge you to make those positive changes. Celebrate everyone...EVERY DAY. That is what African American History Month means to me.