What does African-American history month mean to me?

by Chief Master Sgt. Vernon Butler
86th Airlift Wing command chief

I have always felt it is critically important to celebrate one’s heritage and to know American history. I’ve 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.

When I was preparing to write this, 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 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, something hit me: I realized 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 “us everyday folk and influences” — the people we live, work and play with, and the things that shape our perspective on a daily basis.
What does Black History Month mean to me? It means celebrating diversity and recognizing that all accomplishments from all Americans helped to create and sustain this great nation of ours. It sends the message to not limit ourselves. We should celebrate every American, every day, and respect and appreciate how our differences make us stronger.

I did not have to look hard to find African-American history and influences all around me. I recall as a very young man I was 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 that young age, 17 or 18, my focus was on “darker” and all of 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 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 change my thought process. It taught me several lessons about being proud of who you are, to never put yourself down and to always count your blessings. It taught me that no matter what today looks like, there is always a hope for a brighter tomorrow, and most important, it taught me to know your worth and to always appreciate the worth of those around you.

Another example was my father. He made history every day in my eyes. He served in the Air Force for 22 1/2 years, participated in two wars, served through some pretty trying times for 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 away in 1985, less than two years after I enlisted, so he never got to attend a single promotion ceremony for me. But what he taught me through his example as a God-fearing man, as a father, husband, and not to mention the countless doors his military service opened for me and other Americans, was phenomenal. He was a very proud African American man, well respected by his peers. His example of strength is my testimony today.  I have been blessed and granted the awesome opportunity to serve as a command chief and I am thankful for that blessing, but my father proved to me long ago that you don’t have to be in a position of authority to make a difference — to make 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 understand our differences and change perspectives. One of my favorite quotes is by Alice Walker, who 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, and celebrate everybody every day. That is what Black History Month means to me.