From time to time those of us working with the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP) find ourselves re-emphasizing several points about U.S. history as the country addresses the day’s pertinent issues. These themes bear repeating:
- The nation’s “Creation Story” normally taught in schools is incomplete and often inaccurate.
- In order to understand what we are presently experiencing in our society, citizens must know the details of birthing this country.
- No matter which European country claimed a territory or region in the Western Hemisphere, within the first 20 years of that colony or state’s creation, Africans and their descendants were integral to its development – economically, culturally, and socially.
Our research informs us that if history is only presented from a Euro-centric perspective, it is lopsided, unbalanced. There were many people from various parts of the world who influenced the products and the process of westward expansion. Metaphorically and literally for many, the birthing was a breach of justice, status, identity, and community.
The current example of a limited interpretation and perspective on the country’s history is the issue of the right to bear arms and the push back against control of them. President Obama’s recent modest proposals to regulate the sale of guns have revved up much hoopla around the 2nd Amendment once again. If a complete narrative is presented, it is worth noting that there have always been gun control and exceptions to the right to bear arms based upon need or perceived threat by those in power. Consistently, after the first thanksgiving and welcome was extended by Native people it was soon discovered that the European invaders were permanent. These new settlers’ guns would become the means of their expansion, oppression, and defense.
As American settlers’ objections to English economic control mounted, especially through taxation and on colonial production, the British instituted gun control to restrict armed protest in the American colonies. This was a direct trigger for the conflicts at Concord and Lexington. The right to bear arms, however, was also quickly denied in most of these same colonies to Native people and to enslaved Africans based upon their anticipated threat to colonial and national security. On the other hand, when White colonists defended themselves against Native attack in particular, African-descended people were temporarily allowed to use guns to protect households and settlements. Understandably, gun control was incorporated into the “Slave Codes” and Black Codes throughout this nation in order to thwart Black rebellion and resistance to the unequal status quo.
In the South, where enslaved Black people routinely outnumbered whites, fear of armed Black people went hand in hand in determining weapon use policy until the Civil War. Historically, European Americans have been the only group for whom access to arms has seldom been restricted or regulated. Not until after the Civil War was any limitation placed upon White Americans (Confederates), and for the first time Black people as newly-constituted citizens were permitted in some cases to own and use firearms for daily survival and protection against hate groups.
Access to firearms for non-Whites and the White push back against it has been illustrated time and again. Throughout our national history from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, there has been a reluctance to allow armed Black soldiers in any military undertaking within U.S. borders until desperation left no other choice. There was less resistance to Black armed men fighting for U.S. interests outside of the country. Teddy Roosevelt included Buffalo soldiers from Western Indian territories in the Spanish American War in Cuba; W. E. B. DuBois advocated for the inclusion of Black troops in World War I; and certainly during the 20th and 21st centuries Black soldiers have been major participants in military campaigns in Europe, Asia, Arabia, and the Middle East. The issue was always their return to a segregated and racist country as trained gunmen. In 1919, returning Black soldiers across the nation were met with fierce White resistance – lynchings and sometimes in the form of race riots. Washington, DC in the late 20th century (1975) became the first major city to experience a Congressional universal gun control measure. Many believed that the root impetus for such a drastic action was the city’s Black majority. The rise of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense pushed the button in Oakland, CA. Images of Black people with weapons in public was viewed as dangerous, while a White person in the same stance would be accepted as a citizen’s right to bear arms. There is frequently a racial aspect to this issue as well as an urban/rural dimension. Witness the current standoff in Oregon as armed White farmers and ranchers are holding the federal government at bay and preventing an order to call off their protest on grazing policy. We wonder if the government response would be the same if the farmers and ranchers were non-White.
Violence is as American as apple pie, and regulating the purchase and use of firearms is necessary in a nation where there are as many guns as people. Regulating who can sell, purchase, and own guns with stiff penalties imposed is critical as the nation comes to grips with this matter. The Second Amendment was implemented in the 18th Century when a single-shot long rifle, complete with powder and musket ball, was the weapon of choice in basically a rural environment. The feature film The Revenant illustrates how essential that weapon was in extending the reach of Europeans over indigenous people. The right to bear arms did not anticipate modern devices with magazines containing multiple rounds that could rip off dozens of shots in seconds. To some of us in the MPCPMP, resistance to gun control is rooted in the long-standard perception of unfettered access to weapons by a protected class of people. Even as gun killings fill the daily news, as the profits of arms manufacturers continue to increase exponentially since the inauguration of a Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President, as campaigns against gun regulation are disparaged as unconstitutional, we wonder where the cries of “foul” come from. After all, in reality limits on guns are nothing new in this nation.