Black History Month
By Will Jemison
As we celebrate the contributions of Black folk in this country during Black History Month, I pause to consider how much further we as a nation could be if we were to ever use the influence of our Catholic faith and teachings for more than one or two issues. We currently live in a state that consistently votes against its own interests for nearly every statewide or federal election, yet we wonder why our roads continually are in disrepair, our public education system is historically at the bottom of every scholastic poll and we remain at the top of nearly every health disparity list in the country.
We as Catholics have done an amazing job fighting for the rights of the unborn for decades, yet when it comes to fighting for quality of life for those after birth, we have much more work to do. The failures of many of our elected officials is a mirror-image of what our nation has become. In the past year, America has gone from being an example of hope, prosperity and possibility to precisely what President Donald Trump described Haiti, El Salvador and all the African continent as in recent weeks, a “toilet” country.
Despite his remarks on these black and brown countries, many of which have large populations of our Catholic brothers and sisters, more knowledgeable people are aware of how many of those “toilet” countries have contributed greatly to this country and how our country used prejudicial policies to ensure those same countries remained under-developed.
Haitian soldiers were among the first international supporters of the American Revolution, sending hundreds of men to Savannah, Georgia to fight for America against the British. The Haitian men fought valiantly and in return, just as it’s done for centuries, America failed to acknowledge their contributions and then relegated them to second-class citizenship after the war and later refused to acknowledge the newly formed Haitian government upon its independence from France.
Meanwhile, while our own government survives off temporary spending bills and questionable leadership, several of these countries in Africa are continuing to advance an agenda of progress spearheaded by their respective governments. The nation of Rwanda is set to effectively eliminate cervical cancer within its borders by 2020. Sierra Leone provides free prenatal care for pregnant women and children younger than five years of age. In all, sub-Saharan African immigrants to the United States are ranked among the most educated, with nearly 40 percent of them holding a college degree, compared to just 30 percent of American-born individuals.
After he chose to use such vile and egregious language, the president said he longs for more immigrants from Nordic countries such as Norway. What he consistently fails to realize is Norway and several other industrialized nations long ago concluded for reasons of economic prosperity, social cohesion, productivity and humanity to implement a social safety net and basic access to health care that the president and his party comrades have opposed from the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act.
Sadly, President Trump isn’t alone in his racist rhetoric and certainly falls in line with a great many “good” Christians in this state who’ve upheld Jim Crow era segregationist policies for generations. We don’t have to look further than our own state capital and our legislators who recently voted to end adequate funding for K-12 education throughout Mississippi and considered a bill (SB #2175) that would have ended Medicaid expansion throughout Mississippi at the same time our statewide Medicaid enrollment exceeds 75 percent (3 out of every 4 people) of our total state population.
Many of these same legislators in recent years have ensured little or no funding for mental health and other critical care needs for the citizens of this state. This blatant disregard for the welfare of our brothers and sisters is something that all Catholics should be concerned about. Legislation that fails to allow for the safe-keeping and general welfare of our neighbors – from all walks of life – are in direct conflict with Catholic Social Teaching.
What can you do to celebrate Black History Month? Be aware of what’s taking place in our state and our country and work to steer this ship on a much better course. Bigotry, racism and classism isn’t specific to one party, race or gender, but we all can work to right the ills of the past and keep us from repeating it.
(Will Jemison is coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson)