"The past is never dead. It's not even past." ~ William Faulkner
“In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” ~ Proverbs 18:17
Our present moment here in the United States is, among other things, a desperate struggle over the “ownership” of history. Specifically, who gets to decide what our history was, and what it means. For much of our existence, “history” was what middle-to-upper-class white males said it was. In practice, this has meant that the “history” we teach our children has been mostly a hagiography of the wealthy white male founding fathers, a whitewashing (in both senses) of the past, and a silencing or at least marginalizing the voices of others. All too often, we get a “rah, rah, great democracy, why did we ever change it?” chorus (see, for example, the 1776 Project that the Trump Administration released on...wait for it...Martin Luther King Day.) Those who had no say in our nation for well over a century have been an inconvenient nuisance as far as the Right is concerned. (African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, women, LGBTQ people, and so on…)
The reason that it is so crucial to learn “Black History” is that our history isn’t even history. It is our present. In order to understand why our politics align the way they do, why certain arguments continue to be made, and why the US is so resistant to becoming a 21st Century First World Country, you have to understand the history of our country. And not just the whitewashed version.
To be blunt:
As Americans, we have not learned history. We have learned White History.
We have learned history from a very specific perspective. One that is nowhere near a complete picture, one that has intentionally left out key facts, truths, and perspectives. Without the full - and inconvenient - truth, all that is left is propaganda. A whitewashing in both senses of the word.
The writer of Proverbs had it right: if all you hear is one side, that side sounds right. But, if you let that witness be cross-examined - challenged - the story tends to fall apart. Only by seeing ALL of the truth can you understand what really happened and what it means.
When all we learn about the founding of the US is some combination of “Puritans came here to escape religious persecution” and “Rich white guys set up the world’s most perfect government,” you miss out on crucial truths. Things like the fact that the US was founded on stolen land, conquered by means of the greatest genocide in the history of our planet. An estimated 130 million people - 90 to 95 percent of the indigenous population of the Western Hemisphere - disappeared due to violence, displacement, starvation, and disease caused by the European invasion. That’s actual fact, and we cannot possibly understand our history without acknowledging it.
At the same time, slavery formed the backbone of the economies of the Americas. The 1619 Project is named after the date the first African slave is known to have been imported to what is now the United States. But the actual slave trade in the Western Hemisphere goes back to 1526. Over the course of a few centuries, between 12 and 15 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Millions more died in the passage - so much so that the Transatlantic Slave Trade actually makes the top 20 wars by death (as a percentage of world population.)
The US rose to become an economic power primarily because of slavery. On the eve of the Civil War, the most valuable “asset” the US had, by dollar value, was its enslaved population. Yes, the enslaved were worth more than all the land in the US combined. And even there, much of the land in the South had value precisely because it could be made to produce cotton using slave labor.
In order to justify this obviously cruel and evil oppression of fellow humans, racism (white supremacy) was created. You can only live with your own conscience if you create the belief that those you oppress are inferior. That your oppression is for their own good. And lo! It came to pass!
And this has ultimately been the argument that our nation has been involved in for...400 years.
It is difficult to find any part of our politics which isn’t connected historically and currently to race, and the more I have learned the true history of things, the more I see it.
Just to give a few examples:
Why is the US the ONLY first world country without universal health care?
Answer: Racism. Truman tried to create a universal system back in the late 1940s - when Europe and Canada and Australia and Japan and...well, every other developed nation was doing it. BUT the all-white American Medical Association lobbied hard and was able to block universal healthcare - because they didn’t want to have to serve black people.
Why is every attempt to create government that serves average people tarred as “Socialism”?
Answer: “Socialism” has always been a racist dog whistle here in the US. For example:
See, letting black people have full access to society is “socialism.” Or even "communism" You can see this dating back to the end of the Civil War. I actually blogged about this a few years back.
The narrative hasn’t changed in the last 160 years. “Socialism” is taking money that “belongs” to white people, and using it to benefit black people. Full. Stop. That’s what this is about whenever you hear it in our political discourse.
Why don’t we treat healthcare as infrastructure and provide it to everyone else? Because it is a “giveaway to people who won’t work.” Why do we tolerate third-world level poverty here in the US? Because addressing it “rewards people for laziness.” Why can’t we raise the minimum wage? Because the perception is that those jobs are filled with brown-skinned people, and, well, they don’t deserve it.
Why are we STILL trying to suppress the votes of non-whites?
I don’t think this even needs comment. But yep, here in 2021, the GOP is STILL trying to figure out ways to keep minorities from voting. Again, this dates directly back to the end of the Civil War. This is just the continuation of the same war against a true, multiracial democracy. A significant portion of the white population does not believe that minorities should have a say in our politics. (This, of course, ties back to point two - the ongoing white supremacist view that minorites are lazy moochers. All they do is vote to take money that belongs to white people for themselves.)
Why are Black Lives Matter protests greeted with such fury?
Hey, same thing. Many white people still believe that the police exist to protect them from the scary black people. As evidenced by this lovely quote from a woman who participated in the attempted coup on January 6:
“This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
This is also why we continue to see grossly disparate responses to protesters on the right - generally white and middle class - and those on the left - multiracial. This is why Colin Kaepernick fills so many white people with fury and hate for….kneeling peacefully in protest. While a white lawmaker who called for the execution of Democrats gets a pass.
Again, we are still fighting the same battles. The past is not past. It is the present. Speaking of which:
Why the HELL do we still have Confederate Battle Flags?
One was paraded through the United States Capitol last month. They are everywhere in my town. People - white people - are literally flying the flag of a foreign enemy which was founded for the express purpose of enslaving black people.
The past is not past.
I could go on here, of course. A truly fascinating thing about reading the non-white voices of the past is to see just how little the issues and rhetoric have changed over the last 200 years. True, progress has been made (and always violently opposed by racists), but the core of the argument just gets a little more “polished” as time goes on.
Civil Rights leaders, from Frederick Douglass on, have asserted that the fruit matters. Equality isn’t just a few laws, but true social, political, and economic equality - they are all connected.
Meanwhile, racists - including a hell of a lot of people who don’t think they are racist - keep regurgitating the same tired racist arguments for why we can’t have true equality. Minorities are lazy - if they just worked harder, they would be equal. We can’t use government to tax those who “earned” their money and give it to those who haven’t. (Never mind that the working poor work a lot harder than the rich…and pay higher taxes.) We can’t let those people vote so easily - they just give themselves money. Blacks are just more likely to be criminals. (Yep, heard this one a lot from people who say they aren’t racist.) And on and on and on.
The bottom line is, the past is not in the past but in the present. And studying the past - the real past, with all its messiness - is key to understanding the present. A whitewashed history is not history - it is mere propaganda, wielded to maintain the unjust status quo, to preserve the power of those in power.
Learning Black History (and Indigenous history, and Chicano history, and Women’s history) is really nothing more than filling in the gaps. The gaps created when those crucial voices were removed - silenced, marginalized - by those who wanted their story to be the only, the One True History™. We have already learned White History. White Male History. Wealthy White Male History - see how that ends up so narrow?
Regular readers of my blog will notice that I make an effort to give my kids a more rounded education - as my parents did back in the day. (Before Gothard and Trump.) Although, to be honest, my kids - particularly the teens - actively seek out different perspectives on their own, and are already advocates within their classes for civil rights of all sorts.
Even more than this, however, we as a nation need to do better about telling the truth. The whole truth. Not just the whitewashed pretty lies. The 1619 Project is one of those attempts to tell the truth. There are many parents, teachers, professors, and others trying to do the same. Ultimately, moving beyond the past into a more perfect future requires that we tell the truth, acknowledge the past - and the present - and consciously choose to do and be better.
In the words of Amanda Gorman, the badass young woman who gave an incredible performance at the most recent inauguration:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it
Here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:
2011: 50 Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson
2012: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
2013: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
2014: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
2015: Kindred by Octavia Butler
2016: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
2017: Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South
Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright
2018: Poems 1921-1930 by Langston Hughes
2019: Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
2020: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Other notable books by African American or African authors:
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
White Rage by Carol Anderson
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Books on Black History by other authors:
Red Tails, Black Wings by John B. Holway
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Vol.1 by M. T. Anderson
Devil In The Grove by Gilbert King
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
The End of Policing by Alex Vitale
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