By SHERYL CANNADY
The theme of this year's national celebration of black history, "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas," resonated in the words of the Library's African American History Month keynote speaker, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif. She delivered multiple messages of pride, struggle and brotherhood to a standing-room-only crowd.
"We must always, always go back and look at what we have, where we've come and where we're going," she said.
In a strong, reverent voice, Millender-McDonald, the first black woman to chair the powerful Committee on House Administration, talked about the legacy of her ancestors and the kinship that she felt when she visited Africa and met her "sisters and brothers." "I felt that DNA," she recalled. She also warned that the "motherland" was still struggling for equality. "From slavery to freedom, we wonder if our people are not still enslaved," she said. "There is a struggle still in Africa."
Millender-McDonald, who has represented California's 37th congressional district in Los Angeles since 1996, said her mantra has been to help those who cannot help themselves. Recognizing the importance of knowing the history and legacy of Africans in the Americas, Millender-McDonald supported legislation that would help blacks reconnect to their roots and find their family lineage.
In her speech, she reflected on the positives and negatives of the black experience in America. In recounting the struggles for equality, she noted that "the more things changed, the more they stay the same," citing the undereducation of many of the nation's children decades after the civil rights movement.
Millender-McDonald celebrated the achievement of blacks in politics, including Sen. Barack Obama's bid for the presidency of the United States, which she said was showing black children that they can aspire to the highest office in the land. She remembered "gutsy Shirley Chisholm," the first black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president. "She is the reason that I stand here today," said the congresswoman from Los Angeles.
In spite of black political progress, the speaker warned that "challenges still loom for millions of African-Americans." She highlighted several problem areas: crippling health issues such as hypertension and HIV/AIDS, the growing number of single-parent households, street violence, the significant number of black children living in poverty, substandard schools and the lack of educational freedom. "It is no wonder in this nation, where education is the gateway to opportunity and greater comfort, African-Americans are nearly twice as likely not to finish high school" when compared to their white counterparts, she explained.
"From slavery to freedom, how free are we?" Millender-McDonald asked. "While slavery is not with us, the struggle continues. The same things our forebears had to fight for then, we have to fight for now, because equality is not here."
Drawing her message to a close, the congresswoman reminded the audience, "We must celebrate the achievements of African-Americans. We must appreciate those who've gone before us, whose shoulders that we stand on. We must not ever forget."
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The celebration expanded in 1976 into a month-long tribute celebrated throughout the nation.
Over the years, Woodson donated a vast collection of manuscripts to the Library of Congress, which now holds several million items relating to African-American history and culture.
The webcast of Rep. Millender-MacDonald's speech can be accessed on the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4021.
Sheryl Cannady is the audiovisual production specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.