Celebrating African-American history, challenges faced in America

Story and photos by Brandon O’Connor Assistant Editor

February 28th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 The U.S. Military Academy observed National African-American History Month Feb. 20 at the West Point Club. The observance featured a performance by the Cadet Jazz Forum  and remarks by guest speaker Russell Payne, the West Point Men's Soccer coach.

The U.S. Military Academy celebrated the legacy of African-Americans at the academy and beyond during its annual National African- American History Month Observance Feb. 20 at the West Point Club.
The luncheon, which is part of a monthly series honoring different ethnic and cultural observances including Native Americans and women, featured West Point Men’s Soccer coach Russell Payne as guest speaker.
Payne, a native of Columbia, Maryland and graduate of the University of Maryland where he played goalie, has served as the Black Knights’ head coach since 2010.
The theme of the event was “Black Migration” and Payne spoke about his experience moving from Columbia, which was designed as an all-inclusive planned community, to a more rural area where he was a minority and faced the challenges of being an adolescent African-American male in America.
“We moved about 25 minutes away to a western part of the county that was a little more rural and I was one of the only African-American students at the school I went to,” Payne said. “My experience and that of the other black students at that school was a little different. We really didn’t feel like we were part of the high school community every day.”
After telling his own story, Payne leaned on the legacies of triumphant African-American figures such as the Harlem Hellfighters, Serena Williams and others to show the impact one individual can have in moving the country forward and being a force of change in society.
“As we celebrate Black History Month, I think it is important to connect the dots and highlight this is not a separate, standalone or novel observance,” Payne said. “This is a moment to celebrate great Americans and their ability to create a greater American experience for all people, while at the same time recognizing  their individual racial and cultural differences are shaped by their experience. That is why we have such a great impact on each other.”
Payne also discussed the history of African-Americans in America from arriving as slaves through the Civil War, reconstruction and the civil rights movement and the need for every person to “bring their own inertia to the group” as they work to win the small moments throughout every day.
“American history and progress are not linear and therefore neither is black history or black progress. There has always been ebb and flow,” Payne said. “We look at this nonlinear progression throughout American history and we take a moment to celebrate the importance of African-Americans and particularly African-Americans in the military. It is important to highlight the inertia that the individual has brought to American progress.”
West Point’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity will host its next observance March 20 in honor of Women’s History Month.