“I See What You Did There!”
Given our white-washed history, it’s fair to ask ourselves as a nation,
“Do Black Lives (Really) Matter?” or are we just talking the talk?
I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE!
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
We’ve recently witnessed something we haven’t seen in the United States since the 1960’s: a passionate, concerted outpouring of citizens of every hue, creed and gender protesting the blatant assassinations of black citizens by police and vigilantes:
Floyd George. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery….
The complete list is nauseatingly long.
American citizens are standing in the streets and in front of courthouses and federal buildings in unprecedented numbers demanding, “Enough is enough!” “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Their Names.”
How We Got to This Moment
Although systemic injustice against black people has been the modus operandi ever since the Pilgrims first tied their ships to Plymouth Rock, this is the first time in history when enough currently unemployed people have been sequestered inside their homes as a result COVID-19 to communally witness in real-time white-on-black killings while being simultaneously available to hit the streets during the daytime to call it out.
And the turnout just keeps growing, with no end in sight.
Since “history is (generally) written by the victors” (having conquered whoever stood in their way, and lived to tell the story their way), American children have been spoon fed white-washed myths (“white” being the operative term here) that make the conquerors appear pristine, faultless, and uber-correct as far as every opinion they held and every action they took.
For example, children are taught about the “taming” of the eastern wilderness and the west, with scant exploration of the carnage that such taming caused the indigenous peoples who lived here as much as 18,000 years before white settlers appeared.
Adding insult to injury, the earliest motion pictures depicted Native Americans as blood-thirsty savages who were “selfishly” trying to keep the continent all to themselves,” as actor John Wayne once proclaimed in a recently-resurrected Playboy interview. He also said he believed in white supremacy until such a time as Negros could become “less irresponsible.”
And don’t even get me started on Birth of a Nation…
Nowhere in our schoolbooks were we immersed in the mass eradication of indigenous peoples, including the Mexicans who inhabited vast west and southwest regions of what would become the United States of America in the late 1800’s over their dead bodies and desecrated lands.
And nowhere were we told (viscerally) that the United States of America was literally established on the scarred, blistered, aching backs of black slaves, shanghaied Chinese, indentured servants, and other designated “lesser” beings. Treated like livestock (as well or as poorly as their masters desired), these people have rarely made it into primary and secondary school history books except in a passing scant few lines that made them seem almost incidental to the story, instead of its backbone.
So, in the place of such lived history, glorified fantasies of the “fathers” of our republic, and of the nobility and gentility of the Confederate leaders (slavers all) who seceded and fought to retain the south’s “peculiar institution” have sprung up.
If not for the slave narratives of Frederick Douglas, Equiano Olaudah, Harriet Tubman and others and those who have read and shared them, we never might have been any the wiser, because those long-dead can’t speak except from the pages of yellowed manuscripts, and teaching slaves to read and write was forbidden. (“Uppity” educated folks can cause trouble, you know.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by white author Harriet Beecher Stowe was among the sparks that ignited the powder keg to the Civil War. And we seem to keep fighting it, even though the South was (according to the victors) “soundly defeated.”
Where To From Here?
One scholar, Peter H. Wood, has suggested that a more precise and accurate retelling of our history (less white-washing, more black-narrative) would result in southern plantations being called slave labor camps.
Certainly, the tourist industry in the south would object, but the descendants of slaves would at last feel that their ancestors’ lives, resilience and forced bondage were acknowledged and belatedly honored. It was their backbreaking work under blazing skies and other environmental dangers (including pit vipers) that planted, nurtured, and harvested the crops that made their masters fortunes.
Of Monuments and Men
“The black people I come from were owned and raped
by the white people I come from.
Who dares tell me to celebrate them?”
Caroline Randall Williams
In her essay, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument”, Caroline Randall Williams proclaims, “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, practices and causes of the Old South.”
She reports that she has “No. Voluntary. Whiteness.” in her family (translation: all of her white ancestors were rapists) and concludes with, “Either you have been blind to the truth that my body’s story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed, and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me.”
The subjection of people of color didn’t end when slavery in the United States ended. Institutionalized, systematic injustice continues to happen in every state to this day. If you doubt that, you need only step outside your white bubble of privilege and read the histories and experiences of all too many of today’s people of color.
If watching the excruciating eight minute and forty five second video record of three policemen snuffing the life out of Floyd George even though they knew they were being recorded doesn’t send a chill down your spine and cause bile to rise in your throat, I’m worried about you. And he is just among the latest victims. Most similar atrocities throughout the decades haven’t been caught on camera, but they occurred, and they continue to occur with nauseating regularity: lynchings, police officers planting weapons and drugs on black people, the shooting of a child playing in the park with a plastic gun… the list goes on and on and on…
Whitewashing American history to fit the narrative of the noble European immigrant and their descendants is like fashioning a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: no matter what kind of result you get, it will still look ugly and painful, and it will still hurt the victims in ways no white person can truly understand.
Until every American is treated fairly, the oversight will impact every citizen’s well-being.
Justice deferred is justice denied.
So, I am in wholehearted agreement with Peter H. Wood. Let’s start calling southern plantations (and even our so-called justice system) slave labor camps where black people’s rights and votes were (and are still) deferred, and their hard work benefits the people who designated them of lesser value (except as slaves) because of their pigmentation.
This. Is. America. Now.
And. It. Always. Has. Been. That. Way.
It’s time to change that!