The headline for Gillian Brockell ‘s Washington Post story, published on the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, read: “Tulsa isn’t the only race massacre you were never taught in school.” The graphic below that headline, credited to a Twitter posting from the activist and artist Common, drove that point home.
Sadly, these massacres are not the only missing parts of our national history that we refuse to recognize, teach, or learn from.
Looking more closely at our past will mean that we become aware of who gained and who lost over the decades and centuries we call American history. It would confront those of us who profited from the things, as brutal as they were, that were done in order build the United States of 2021 that is an often-stark reality. It would force us to come face to face with what we, individually and as a society, owe in recompense and reparations because of what was done to our benefit.
There is a growing political movement to ignore the stories we find unsettling to our self-image, and when they cannot be just forgotten, to ensure that they remain disconnected, and their lingering impact can be ignored. Those fighting against a deeper understanding of our nation, past and present, pretty and ugly, want to make it impossible to draw any connection between yesterday and today; they want to avoid any chance that we may confront debts we owe because of our history.
Too many voices, powerful voices, are now rising to join that effort and build another wall, one that separates us from our past. They want us to believe that nothing that happened before today has any impact on our present or our future.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, responding to a question about the need to teach that unedited version of our history said, “There was a lot of slavery going on around the world in the early 1600s. We fought the Civil War in order to put our original sin behind us. We passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 … I think trying to completely denigrate and downgrade American historical moments like 1776, 1787, 1965—critical moments—is a mistake.”
The New York Time’s temerity in publishing the 1619 Project made it a plumb target. Beyond a debate between historians, this became a battle of the reality of oppression. How could they suggest that anything about slavery has meaning today? How could they suggest that we need to recognize how the political structure of our government or the wealth of our economy is a living remnant of things that happened 400 years ago? All the bad stuff we did should be lost in the mists of time; only the good things have important historical reality.
To drive this point home the rising “hear no evil, see no evil” opposition want historians who see the importance of this connection to be demonized and rooted out. “Critical Race Theory” has become for them another target because in the words of one of its founding theorists, Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw says, it “is a practice. It’s an approach to grappling with a history…that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
For those who fear the impact of a clearer historical lens, teaching from this perspective is as, Russell Vought, Donald Trump’s last Director of the Office of Management and Budget put it last fall in a government-wide memo “is training us ”to believe divisive, anti-American Propaganda…[it]…runs counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception…engendering division and resentment…”
State governments in 13 states (Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah) have passed or have under consideration legislation that bars teachers from helping their students understand that the past can live on, that it can and does still resonate, benefitting some and penalizing others, often based on race, gender, etc. Missouri Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican sponsor of legislation in his state captured the discomfort of facing our history and the desire to quash it during the legislative debate, “I think critical race theory, and in particular the 1619 Project, does in fact seek to make children feel guilt and even anguish, not because of anything they’ve done, but solely based on the color of their skin.”
The fear that these politically motivated pressures will make studying that map of massacres and other parts of the other lost and forgotten parts of our history evokes makes speaking such truth risky. Nikole Hannah Jones who spearheaded the NY Times’ 1619 Project was offered the prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism of University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. As reported by The Assembly the pressure to deny her view of our historical legacy, one that spoke to her reality as a Black woman was too strong for University leaders to resist. “Previous Knight Chairs, who also did not have doctoral degrees, were offered tenure…[but]…the University refused to grant her tenure, a status that all of her predecessors had been given and one that the faculty had recommended.”
The University’s decision appears to be a direct response to pressure from Walter Hussman, Jr, a $25 million donor to the program that now bears his name. In a series of emails to university leadership he challenged the right of a journalist and a historian to view history with anything but a white lens. “a September email…took issue with a section of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay on the country’s post-World War II struggle for civil rights, in which she wrote, ‘For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.’ Hussman wrote: ‘I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War…Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer Prizes, too.’”
In response to the University’s decision, Hannah Jones laid out the case for why a broader view, an uncomfortable view of our history is so critical. “As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades-long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights.”
On Memorial Day, the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary pulled the plug on its invited speaker, Retired Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter, when he dared to use a clear historical lens when reflecting on the history of this holiday. His daring to tell an audience that “the holiday is rooted in a moving ceremony that was conducted by freed slaves on May 1, 1865, at the tattered remains of a Confederate prisoner of war camp. The ceremony is believed to have included a parade of as many as 10,000 people, including 3,000 African American schoolchildren singing the Union marching song, ‘John Brown’s Body.’ They were carrying armfuls of flowers and went to decorate at the graves” was more than the Legion Post’s leadership could stand.
The need to see the history of the nation in all its complexity, to understand that the past does continue to impact today, and tomorrow was driven home to me during a recent discussion of the Tulsa Massacre. As important as it was to understand the Massacre and the meaning of its memory being suppressed for almost a century, it was important to understand that Native Americans also had a part of the story we must learn. “What was to ultimately become Tulsa was part of Indian Territory, which was created as part of the relocation of the Five Civilized Tribes—the Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, and Seminole peoples. These Native American tribes moved into the region after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 when they were forced to surrender their lands east of the Mississippi River to the federal government in exchange for land in the Indian Territory. (Wikipedia)”
Yes, our history is complex. Yes, White America is the oppressor when the story is fully told. As uncomfortable as those truths may be, they force me as a White American to look inward. Have I taken responsibility for acts I did not do but which I have been the beneficiary of? Have I done what must be done to atone and repair the harm done that remains real in the lives of Native, Black, Brown, and other people of color?
These are the questions that this battle over history is about. If we walk away, as too many of our leaders and neighbors wish to do, they will not go away. The harm of the past will continue and the ultimate reckoning, when it comes, will be more difficult and uglier.