If I am not who you say I am then you are not who you think you are.
Whenever observance for July 4th approaches, historical reflection is appropriate. This year, 2015, has been a time when chickens came home to roost. The racism and prejudice fostered in this nation for centuries have triggered events that we Americans are confronting and hopefully have the will to change.
Recently, on the suggestion of New Orleans National Park Service Superintendent Lance Hatten I read Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson (1999) which focuses primarily on African enslavement and the domestic human trade. Very clearly the author presented how enslavement functioned and how slavery created identity – white, black, inferior, superior, power, wealth – on not simply falsehoods but pure fantasy. Johnson writes that since its beginning, this nation has believed in a fantasy and developed laws, a culture, and institutions that supported and sustained it. Today we are not dealing with only the vestiges of illusion and self-deception but its legacy of privilege and disadvantage. We have to rethink who we are.
We are not referring to mythology, all nations have their heroes and usually they are based upon some portion of historical reality. This American fantasy of race and belief in the inferiority of non-white or non-European descended people was totally fabricated for purposes of sustaining human oppression and rationalizing territorial expansion. To heighten the issue is the contradiction perpetuated from the beginning of enslavement with the country’s stated ideals of each person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Non-white people bought into these national ideals lock, stock, and barrel; and for good measure they added equality. This struggle has been ongoing for more than 450 years. Whether you mark the country’s beginning in 1513 (Spanish), in 1607 (English), or in 1776 (U.S.) the issue persists. Over a period of time by legalizing slavery and defining people as inferior and unequal to the power holders a fantasy, a political “Disney World,” was deliberately constructed. Inevitably fantasies, like sand castles, crumble. They cannot be permanent.
And so, this year the product of that racism resulted in multiple killings of Black people across the nation and the decision to remove the Confederate flag from government grounds. President Obama as a Black Man in the White House has elicited vitriolic response and irrational unprecedented disrespect from some citizens. These all are connected. The fantasy is very slowly being dismantled and discarded as we challenge ourselves to redefine who we are as a nation. The question is what do we see our selves becoming? Who are was as Americans? What ideals do we want to nurture? Change is never easy.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone they will be forced to deal with pain.
The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has assumed the responsibility of physically marking the places in the United States where the price of this fantasy became the reality of captive Africans. This effort cannot be restricted to descendants of the enslaved because everyone was involved. It will take great effort to heal from this history.
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.
The three quotes in bold italics in this post are by author James Baldwin.