Historical narrative is based upon more than documentation. “Facts” are placed within a perspective – the writer’s, the reader’s, the listener’s, and all have points of view. In the same manner that most of the maps of the world have as their focal center the Northern Hemisphere with North America and Europe as physically exaggerated entities, much of history that is presented and learned is positioned with bias.
Edward E. Baptist illustrates this point in his recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By altering the language to describe the issues, Baptist informs the readers and urges them, through anecdotal and statistical information, to broaden and reposition their perspectives on Black people, capitalism, and slavery in the United States. In his book, plantations are called “labor camps;” slavery is described as “continual torture”; and the term “hand” is explained as the function of the enslaved, reducing the person to one useful appendage. Once the experience of enslavement is understood within these definitions, then history becomes more clear and accurate. We can begin to appreciate that survival was the principal objective for these millions of oppressed people for centuries – whether as an individual, family or group. The legacy of all this exists today, framed within the accepted definition of race.
Over the last three years, MPCPMP has worked on repositioning the story of Africans and their descendants in the U.S. As we approach Black History Month, after completing the rituals of commemoration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January, the marginalization of African Americans is increasingly apparent. Much like the stories told of Native, Latino, and Asian people, the Black experience is considered by many a by-product, an aside even if accepted as critical and at times impacting national events. These people are background for the story of European and national development. MPCPMP argues that particularly without the Black experience there would be no United States of America, no land of the free and home of the brave.
It is projected that by 2050, people of European descent will be the minority population group in this country. Could this be why there now is a trend to talk about post-racial America? Perhaps those who have viewed themselves as the majority now will employ class or some other hierarchal delineation to assert and maintain power. The difficulty is that race, even though qualitatively fabricated, has been used and integrated into American culture. Racism will be difficult to eliminate quickly, certainly not in the next thirty years. Silly terms such as the “majority minority” – those are Latinos – are used to insure that “non-white” majority groups remain delineated and separate.
If, by 2050, the U.S. will be a non-white nation (that only rang true for 200 years anyway), if race cannot be a distinct category as more people acknowledge their mixed heritage, if Europe is not a continent but the tip of Asia, then it is time that we not only change the lens but the angle of perception.
A very diverse group of people created this nation, people from everywhere, and they are still coming. Right now, today, not tomorrow, let us acknowledge the people who established and made it so. Ironically, a system of oppression, enslavement, torture, and genocide made this nation the land of opportunity. People who experienced these horrors were essential catalysts for changing the judicial, social, and cultural systems that enabled these inequalities and injustices. They were/are not a by-product. They and their descendants cannot be relegated to one month of history and one or two holidays a year but should be included in the same way as George Washington, Pulaski, and Lafayette.
Presently, we have too many missing parts to make sense of the present. History is not a straight line of progress, but we can learn from all its twists and turns if we choose. How long can we continue within this inaccurate construct? As long as we allow it to exist.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there have been so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act . . . And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn Let’s keep this in mind as we live through this year. Each of us, even “. . . if we do act, in however small a way,” can insist upon and acknowledge accurate history and make change.