Adventures in Shameful American History

If I’ve been absent from the blog lately, it’s because I’m steadily checking things off my end-of-year to-do list, including much reading. I’m finishing up preliminary research for my novel and have spent much of the last six months exploring the very violent history of race in America, from pre-Civil War through the 1960s. And despite having minored in US history in college, it has been jaw-droppingly eye opening.

In school, we generally learn about the slave trade, the escalation of slavery with the advent of the cotton gin, the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation (whose 150th anniversary we have recently noted in this country), and the very beginnings of the period known as Reconstruction (maybe). During this time we learn to love Frederick Douglass, the former slave who ran in white circles, and to appreciate, but be slightly suspicious of, the more dangerous-sounding W.E.B. Du Bois. We then briefly consider the Industrial Revolution before we plunge into a string of wars overseas–the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

Finally we circle back around to the race question. How have the descendants of those freed slaves been faring all this time we’ve been focused on lands across the oceans? Apparently poorly. So we read about the Civil Rights Movement and learn to love a pacifist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. and learn to be wary of people who preach revolution like Malcolm X. At least, that’s how it went when I was in my mostly white high school.

We get the arbitrary bookends of a struggle, as though Civil War were the beginning and Civil Rights were the end, which, obviously they weren’t. But even if they were the beginning and the end, what happens when we read just the first and last chapter of a book and nothing in between? We might be able to figure out what happened at the end, but we won’t understand why. Most importantly, we will not have had any way to identify with or even develop much empathy for the protagonist because we haven’t seen his struggles clearly. We’ll be given a clue here and there in the last chapter, but we won’t really know what those clues truly mean.

This is what happens when educators and media focus on the grand moments in history (like the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and yet neglect to help people fully understand the very long story that connects them, the frighteningly grim realities that tie those singular pretty moments together. We watch the stage being set and we see the moments before the final curtain, but while the play is being lived out on stage, we’re standing outside the theatre having a smoke.

So what happened while we weren’t paying attention? What happened in the years between Emancipation and I Have a Dream? That’s what I’ve been reading about. Day after day, week after week, I’ve been reading. And I have been stunned at all I never really allowed to sink in.

As a young student, my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was that it was about fairness. It wasn’t fair for one group to be treated as second class citizens. I never really understood how far beyond “separate but equal” or belittling speech or dirty looks the issue really went. The photos in our history books of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs cannot begin to help a person understand the sheer magnitude of the continuous suffering of black people in America.

Our books should have shown children picking up severed toes and fingers of lynching victims as souvenirs. Because that happened.

Our books should have shown people strung up and tortured for nothing more than baseless accusations or because they were nearest person with dark skin that the crowd had handy. Because that happened, at one point every four days.

Our books should have shown close-ups of anguished faces of bereft mothers, wives, children, and brothers. Because that happened with heartrending regularity.

Instead, we saw blurry figures seated at counters or standing in lines or walking down the street. Always from a distance too great to see the expressions on their faces.

And what could never be shown in a photo, but that can be drawn–slowly–from 1,000+ pages of interviews, statistics, newspaper clippings, and historical inquiry, is the psychological terrorism that lay beneath the outright terrorism. The confused and hurt minds of children growing up under a cloud of invisible and arbitrary rules, worried that even the smallest infraction could be the catalyst to their own death or the deaths of loved ones. The utter lack of any sense of self-worth that generation upon generation must have felt. The hopelessness.

But we don’t have time for real history. We only have time for soundbites and headlines. And so we don’t understand times past and thus we don’t understand the present time. We think, “Why are they so angry? Why can’t they just be patient? Why can’t they let things right themselves naturally?”

The more I’ve read, the more I realize that, had I been alive and black in the 1960s, I almost certainly would have been militant. I now understand those figures in history that I had been subtly taught to stand in judgment of for their confrontational writings and speeches. I think I would have admired Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to organize a nonviolent movement, but I would have found it hard to undertake personally. And I now have even more respect for the incredible individuals who did take part in peaceful civil disobedience and did not retaliate when they were attacked, hosed, bombed, and beaten–an almost supernatural forbearance.

There is no denying that the history of this country is one steeped as much in violence and oppression as any other in the history of the world. We like to believe that we are different. But we aren’t. We are not somehow above it. We pretend we are and we sit in judgment of societies that make no attempt to hide their violence. We decry genocide while we recently (in my parents’ lifetime) often stood but a hair’s breadth away from it. We focus on ideals and gloss over realities.

When you take the time to read deeply about slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, the Great Migration, race riots, and all the many political maneuverings carried out in order to subjugate, separate, and even annihilate the descendants of slaves in America, you see the awful truth: our history isn’t pretty.

But, you may argue, my ancestors never owned slaves, never lived in the South, never this, never that. I know. I can say the same about mine. Many of mine weren’t even Americans until the 1940s. The reality is, though, that if you live in America, its history is your history. We cannot avoid being formed by it. The present realities of our lives and our relationships with those people who look different than us are partially a product of that cumulative history, whether or not we had anything to do with it.

The thing is to not ignore it. Pretending violence and racism and subjugation do not exist does nothing to negate them. It is simply refusing to acknowledge the flames even as the house burns down around you. We should be able to learn about the past, talk about the past, and use the past to inform the future. A better future.

As I finish my initial research (right now I’m reading the incredibly readable and fascinating The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration) I am sobered, stunned, stupefied by the past–and yet I’m looking forward to working through our history with fiction. Sometimes the best way to display the truth in such a manner that others grasp it and allow it to change them is through stories. And I have a story to tell.

I only hope I am up to the task.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Shameful American History

  1. It’s a worthwhile undertaking. But humans have been and are still subjected to dehumanization the world over. For race, color, religion, tribal descendancy. In the USA it has been more prominent because it is a large nation. Apartheid in South Africa reached a similar prominent proportion, in particular because of US guilt feelings about it’s past. Nelson Mandela became prominent because he prevented a huge bloodshed and perhaps even civil war as happened in the USA. But colors are still very divided and crime and murder still rank very high. Israel keeps warning about Iran and its proxies wanting to destroy it causing a second holocaust. Christians are pursued and murdered in the Middle-East. The point is not so much about what happened in US race relations as why humans continue to repeat their sordid behavior despite all the guilt feelings.

  2. And to clarify, what I’m talking about in this post is not the universal problem of evil and suffering, but the WAY we talk about it in the US as though we are somehow not culpable. I grew up in a time of relative domestic peace (1980s and 1990s) and so my framework for understanding race struggles in the US was that violence was an anomaly, because it was an anomaly in my particular time. But it was not an anomaly. It has been the standard practice of our forebears. The time of relative peace I grew up in was the anomaly.

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