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“Black history is American history”

February 2024: Charles Moore is counsel in our Washington, DC office. As part of our US Black History Month celebrations, he explains its significance to him and his perspective on the Black experience in the US today.

There's a rich diversity of Black American culture
Black identity is not monolithic, although we have shared experiences. I grew up here in Washington, DC.  Someone growing up in LA, Chicago, or in the rural United States may have very different individual experiences than I have had—even with the shared experience of being Black in America. At the same time, we should acknowledge some of the big-picture cultural impacts of Black American "culture" on American life—think of areas like music, literature, and food.

There's pressure on individual Black people to represent us all
Take Doug Williams, legendary quarterback for our local Washington, DC NFL team (now known as the Commanders). During Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos, Mr. Williams became the first Black starting quarterback in a Super Bowl. On the one hand, most Black people I knew were rooting for him to win—even if they didn't otherwise root for the team. On the other hand, Mr. Williams had tremendous pressure on his shoulders. Reporters asked him about being the "first" at the Super Bowl press conferences.

Folks wondered whether other Black quarterbacks would get opportunities if Mr. Williams had played poorly on the biggest stage. This worry was not out of the blue. In April 1987, less than a year before that January 1988 Super Bowl, baseball executive Al Campanis—a teammate and friend of Jackie Robinson's—had suggested on a popular national television show that African Americans lacked the "necessities" to be baseball managers (field or general), and he asked how many (Black) quarterbacks there were. Although those comments immediately cost Mr. Campanis his job, the sentiment was out there.

Mr. Williams, like many others before him, had to represent and be a role model for the entire community. He ultimately performed superbly, and he was named the most valuable player of the game.

I try to understand where each person is coming from
It's important to figure out whether race or identity is really at issue. You should never make assumptions, but you also should not ignore obvious signs. For example, a Black associate may ask about having to work on a lot of certain kinds of assignments. If other associates have had a similar experience, then my response will reflect that the associate's experience is "normal" (even if not optimal). But if I sense that there is something unique about this associate's experience, I'll probe a little deeper. Listening is key.

There's still room for all of us to have challenging conversations
As a law student years ago, I remember reading about the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The website for the Apartheid Museum, which I have had the privilege of visiting, describes the Commission's purpose as "promot[ing] reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid by the full disclosure of truth." There was great power in discussing and owning what had happened.

I thought it was a solid basis on which to build a new country. Here in America, it reminded me that it's difficult to have genuine reconciliation without acknowledging truths about our own history. Unfortunately, we still have some who struggle with acknowledging racism in our history—even as we have made great progress in recent decades.

We all have to get out of our comfort zone
To help people reach their best, you have to make sure that they understand what's expected of them and identify any issues that could hinder them. Sometimes that means exposing vulnerabilities in yourself that you might not want to expose.

Black History month is a milestone
It's important to take stock of where we are, what has changed, and what we still need to change. We've come a long way; the fact that I can work at a firm like ours, and that it's normal for me to do so, is evidence of that. My parents, who grew up in segregation—not to mention older generations of Black people—did not see opportunities like this as "normal" when they were children.

However, we're not there yet. For me, Black History Month is an important opportunity to educate everyone about the contributions of African Americans to our country and historical events of significance to the African American experience. One way that I like to mark the Month is by listening to speakers with first-hand experience of Black history. In 2022, for example, we invited historian Junius Williams, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, to speak at our celebration in Washington, DC.

Black history is also American history
I embrace the opportunity to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans, but it's important to remember that Black history is also American history. I'm big on this—we shouldn't be thinking of "Black History" as some separate set of events that has nothing to do with the advancement of the United States as a whole. There have been many Black religious leaders, politicians, inventors/scientists, educators, businesspeople, military leaders, lawyers, athletes, entertainers, and others who have helped shape the America that we know today. Our stories—stories of survival, struggle, triumph, and even failure—are the stories of this country. It's important to use Black History Month to highlight these stories, and to connect them to the larger story of America.

Artwork in header banner ©Kip Omolade, Child of the Crown (detail), 2024