Lately I’m hearing a lot of laments from white people of a certain age, summed up by one woman in her 70s: “I feel betrayed by my history textbooks.”
I share this shame about my own cursory grasp of the unrelenting, race-based cruelty that attends American history. Many whites I know feel duped by the sanitized United States’ history we were taught in school. Or rather, the history we weren’t taught.
We were brought up to believe in American “exceptionalism.” That’s led us to believe that our nation is superior to others and incapable, say, of nurturing the ruinous tribalized hatreds we see imbedded in other nations.
Thus we tend to dismiss atrocities inflicted by white Americans upon people of color as aberrant, abnormal behavior, not reflections of our nation’s morality.
I’m not arguing that most American whites consciously behave cruelly to non-whites; I don’t believe they do. But we need to look more closely at how our society became programmed to reflexively demean people of color and treat them as less worthy than whites.
Mis-education is no excuse for living a life of perpetual ignorance. It’s disheartening that it’s taken so many of us so long to understand what happened to Black Americans over their 400-year history here – and how that history affects what’s happening now. Many of us apparently needed to witness for ourselves the police murder of George Floyd to finally really see our race problem.
Now we’re asking: Why hadn’t we heard of the many white mob attacks on Black communities throughout the nation after Black emancipation? Mobs leveled Black neighborhoods, often killing as many as a hundred or more. Thousands were left homeless.
Who knew that before World War II Nazi officials visited the United States to learn from Southern whites how to treat Jews? Nazis considered Americans the world’s leading experts on caste systems and the practice of eugenics. But even some Nazis remarked that our treatment of Blacks seemed harsh.
Did we know?
And who knew that Southern “barbecues” of Black Americans were so popular, and inspired so much white pride, that it was common practice to send celebratory picture postcards of charred Black bodies to white friends and family across the land?
We’d heard of lynching. But did we know that nearly 4,000 Blacks were lynched after they were freed, among them returning World War I soldiers in uniform deemed too “uppity” by whites?
Did we know that when slaves were freed, their enslavers were paid reparations for the loss of their human “property” while the enslaved themselves got nothing?
It’s hard to conjure a more outrageous example of injustice. The United States has paid a dear economic and social price for this mistake. Instantaneously creating a class of destitute citizens, then stubbornly hindering their efforts to prosper is a delusional nation-building strategy.
I bring up this dismal topic for one reason only: We need to know the full story of the nation we’ve been to understand the kind of nation we are – and want to be. That means acknowledging American evil as well as American morality.
Uplifting nation-building narratives are one thing. Censorship is quite another.
“We must face our racial history and our racial present,” says Michelle Alexander, a Black civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, which lays bare the racial injustice central to our failed prison system. “We cannot solve a problem we do not understand.”
It’s no mystery that awareness of centuries of race-based cruelties could disappear from white American consciousness. The winners of every conflict write its history. All nations tell the inspirational stories about themselves and submerge the rest.
Black history is not the only tragic American experience rendered all but invisible in the cleaned-up narrative of our nation.
No Indian history
I grew up next to the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation, headquartered at historic Fort Hall, Idaho. We heard not a word about the history of Fort Hall during our schooling, nor about how the Indians who lived there got there.
Yet we sat in classrooms with students who were Sacajawea’s people – the young Shoshone woman who proved so valuable to Lewis and Clark on their celebrated expedition. Indians were vanishingly small footnotes, hovering like mythic shadow creatures, not fully formed peoples whose homelands we took from them. Indian genocide is our nation’s other grievous original sin.
Black history? We learned the date when slaves were freed. Of the depravity of the slavery itself and the ensuing century of vicious Jim Crow persecution? We learned next to nothing. In the 1950s, those Jim Crow cruelties still were enforced. Academically speaking, they should have been studied in a Current Events class.
The heartening news is that a group of Americans whose strength has sustained their communities over tumultuous centuries is poised to help set things right: Black women. Apparently, they’ve had enough. This year a record 130 Black women are candidates for Congress.
And there’s a welcome blossoming of important work from a new generation of astute Black women writers who are skillfully articulating our nation’s racial past and present – remedial reading for whites, if you will.
Start your re-education with “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.
She brilliantly unmasks the dehumanizing, 400-year-old caste system we’ve inherited that threatens the success of our republic. If there’s one book today that every white American should read, this is it.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.