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Opinion: James Clyburn: America needs us to get outside our comfort zones

Two years ago, I invited Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise to join me in the Lincoln Room — which he previously occupied — as I honored Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls for their roles in helping Lincoln preserve the Union, by hanging their portraits in that room. They were both born enslaved. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by dressing in a seaman’s uniform and carrying false papers. He made his way to Rochester, New York, and became a famous abolitionist, prolific author, and — in the opinion of many — the greatest American orator ever.
Robert Smalls escaped slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, during the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate ship and surrendering it to Union troops. He was rewarded with his freedom. Smalls amassed great wealth, served in the South Carolina State legislature and the US Congress, and became — in my opinion — the most consequential South Carolinian ever.
I have never seen any indication that Douglass ever traveled south of Washington, DC, or that Smalls traveled north of our nation’s capital, but at a critical point during the Civil War, together they met with President Lincoln and received his blessing to recruit Blacks into the Union Army. Through Douglass’ efforts in the North and Smalls’ efforts in the South, more than 180,000 Black men joined the cause. The influx of those Black soldiers helped turn the tide that resulted in victory for the Union.

In light of current events, I feel compelled to mention another of my favorite Black History Month lessons drawn from the lives of Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer. Unlike Douglass and Smalls, Edison and Latimer had dissimilar backgrounds and life experiences. Edison was a White Midwesterner. Latimer, who lived in Boston, was the son of former slaves. Despite their differences, they both were inventors with penchants for entrepreneurship.

Why I'm asking for more from this Black History Month
Edison is recognized as the most prolific American inventor of his time and is credited with having invented the light bulb, but he could not stop it from quickly burning out. Indeed, one of America’s most celebrated inventors realized that he was going to need help. Since there is record of Edison capitalizing off racial stereotypes that degraded African Americans, he would have had to step out of his comfort zone to team up with Latimer, who created a longer-lasting carbon filament that perfected Edison’s invention. Latimer wrote the first book about electric lighting and installed public lighting in several cities here and abroad.
Black History Month this year is more than a trip down memory lane
Black History Month takes on deeper meaning this year. President Joe Biden released a statement calling on Americans, “to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption, and hope.” Those words are a recognition of the multifaceted moment in which we find ourselves.

Getting beyond this moment and finding “reckoning, redemption, and hope,” may require getting outside of our comfort zones. We may feel safe and secure remaining inside our bubble interacting only with those who look and think like us. But doing so risks living in echo chambers and insular existences. It prevents the taking of bold and courageous steps like Douglass and Smalls did, and respecting the experiences of others like Edison and Latimer did.

Congress has become a clear example of this entrenchment. We are being hampered and undermined by a deadly pandemic, inept leadership and deep ideological divides. America needs bold innovative solutions and Americans want leaders who are willing to step outside their comfort zones.

Read More: Opinion: James Clyburn: America needs us to get outside our comfort zones

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