Monday, February 19, 2007

Know Thyself

Gary Younge in The Nation has a really great article up about the need for Whites to come to terms with their history with regards to Jim Crow oppression. Now, obviously, in the school system today we are (or, at least most of us are) taught about the horrors of America's racial caste system. But, as Younge notes, so much of it is taught in the passive voice.
Leaders "get assassinated," patrons "are refused" service, women "are ejected" from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.

The argument against this sort of historical reckoning is that "it wasn't us." Do not stone the sons for the sins of the father. But this is not adequate. First, we don't make that argument when taking collective pride in our accomplishments: We" won World War II, "we" developed the greatest democracy on earth, "we" invented the lightbulb and the steamboat and the internet. Second, it does not account for the manner in which past sins yield present privileges. Insofar as some tragedies still matter, ignoring our history in this case means that we also ignore present inequities that stem from that history.
So we do not need more white history, we need it better told. Settlement, slavery and segregation--propelled by economic expansion and justified by white supremacy--inform much of what the United States is today. The wealth they created helped bankroll its superpower status. The poverty they engendered persists. But white history does not mean racist history any more than black history means victim's history. Alongside Blake, Milam and Bryant, any decent White History Month would star insurrectionist John Brown; the Vanilla Ice of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten; civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the Freedom Summer of 1964; and Viola Liuzzo, murdered during the Selma to Montgomery march. It would explain why Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, why George W. Bush chose Bob Jones University to revive his presidential hopes. It would tell the story of how Ruby Bates recanted her rape accusation in a bid to save the Scottsboro boys from the noose and how the [family of Rosa Parks bus driver James Blake] never did reconcile themselves to the event that brought them infamy. "None of that mess they said was true," said his wife, Edna. "Everybody loved him. He was a good, true man and a churchgoer."

This is who we were. To a large extent, it remains who we are. It is not who we have to be. But our past--for good and for ill--must be told, lest it not become our future as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Every month is white history month