And I wonder if the problem of African-American History is that it so coldly and cruelly counters the American narrative. I have spent the past two decades thinking about that history and it’s ultimately made me more of a believer in the American project, not less of one. But that’s a relatively recent development and one at least partially tied to what happened in 2008.
I’ve been doing a lot of research and information-gathering for a series of posts about the criminal justice system, which is perhaps the most racially charged arena of American life today. It’s led to some historical digressions and a lot of learning, much of which is still ongoing.
I went to a pretty liberal high school (in the 80s, we had nuns get shot doing social justice work in Central America!), in a pretty liberal area in a Northern state. There was never any debate that slavery was the central cause of the civil war; there was no teaching around Jim Crow. But my memory of that information is factual. We did not attend to primary sources or work to uncover – on a visceral level – the kind of thrashing, gaping cruelty that one class of people in America legally perpetrated upon another for hundreds of years.
We learned that the Founding Fathers – even the Southerners – had doubts about the morality and legitimacy of slavery. This is held up by many as a badge of honor, a shield against accusations of racism – but regardless of what might have been in those men’s hearts, what they produced in the Constitution was a document which enshrined slavery as right and proper, which made it legal policy that a slave had only 3/5 the humanity of a white man. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were declaimed by these same Founding Fathers to be the province of all men.
The road to hell is, as the saying goes, paved with good intentions.
The American story does not blend well with the reality of American history. We are a nation of immigrants, or so we often hear, but black Americans (and Native Americans) are counted out of this narrative; their immigration was forced and violent, an escape not to a better life but to servitude and oppression. What black Americans found in their new, unchosen nation was a violence and domination greater than anything being fled from in Europe – the prejudices of the Old World were not merely reconstituted on our shores but hardened and built into the very fabric of Southern society, an empire of evil so great even the Founding Fathers – men bold enough to incite a revolution and egalitarian enough to script a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – could not bear to face it.
From Colorlines, describing “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a book about the Great Migration:
These migrants escaped Jim Crow—the segregation that ruled Southern life as whites reacted to Emancipation with new rules enabling the ongoing theft of black labor, the violence that controlled black communities and the institutional arrangements that made it impossible for black people to get their feet under them. Wilkerson places the Great Migration in the context of the pilgrims escaping religious persecution, the Irish escaping hunger, the Jews escaping Nazism and the Chinese escaping the implications of being landless.
For all other ethnic groups America was the triumphant promise, the end of the journey of escape and the start of a new life. For black Americans living under slavery and Jim Crow – the latter a system dismantled less than fifty years ago – America itself was to be escaped from; there was no promise in simply being here, no protection in citizenship, no victory in arrival.
I suspect that TNC is correct in sussing out both the necessity of Black History Month as well as the reason for the vociferous pushback against it: Black History Month is not merely an occasion to celebrate exceptional African-Americans, who rose above the incredible odds against them; it is also a call to reframe the American story, to recognize that the violence done against our own people never can or should be erased.
No country – indeed, no individual – is particularly fond of such self-examination. America is still a young and optimistic nation, which may impede the process even further. It’s easier to think on our triumphalism than our flaws, and not only in race relations – as RustWire’s discussion of “ruin porn” details, perhaps our discomfort with Rust Belt decay is because we prefer to imagine Detroit and Cleveland and Pittsburgh, if we must think on them at all, as they once were: victories of capitalism, heralded and prosperous in the days of American-made steel and automobiles. It is much more pleasant to linger on the high points of black history (Lincoln! DuBois! MLK!) than to seriously face the circumstances which necessitated such moral courage, or on the undone work which remains an obligation for anyone who should think to honor the suffering of the millions of individuals whom America chose – knowingly, willingly, with (white) democratic participation – to enslave.