“It really seems that nothing of justice, liberty, or humanity can come to us except through tears and blood.”–Frederick Douglass, 1863.
Like most, I’ve had much on my heart lately that I wish I could express more eloquently than my poor writing skills will allow. Yes, I’ve posted a few thoughts on social media, retweeting things I found interesting, upsetting, or relevant. I’ve also responded to personal questions that I’ve gotten from friends and students. But as a white man, I’ve felt that probably the best thing I can do right now is shut up and listen.
I’m ready to share my thoughts on a few things, however, not that anyone cares. This is largely self-cathartic.
Just when we thought the pandemic would be the defining story of the year, or perhaps even this generation, the grossly negligent shooting of Breonna Taylor, the cold-blooded lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, and especially the slow, torturous murder of George Floyd has rocked the country to the core, giving power to the Black Lives Matter movement and causing almost everyone (especially whites) to examine their hearts and wrestle with their consciences.
It’s really amazing to see all the introspective and heartfelt posts and tweets all over social media, as the protests show no signs of slowing.
Let’s be clear, our nation was born out of a violent protest movement, and almost every expansion of citizenships rights beyond what our Founders intended has come from protests. Our nation’s ties to protests are almost as old as the racism that is so deeply engrained in the fabric of our country; they both define who we are.
But these are the most numerous and largest protests we’ve ever seen. It’s truly exhilarating to watch. Initially marred by violence and a media overly focused on fires and looting, these largely peaceful protests have shown America at its best/worst, finally dragging our seething racial tensions into the light for us all to confront—publicly and privately.
Unfortunately, the partisan war we’re raging with ourselves has turned what should be a unifying event into yet another divisive one, just as it did the pandemic. In regard to that, let me vent here about just a few things:
1. When looting and rioting were occurring, the media focused on the violence, with the more liberal media featuring commentators struggling to justify the looting, rather than focusing on the vast majority of protestors who were peaceful and making great efforts to protect their neighborhoods.
2. Martin Luther King’s words about rioting being “the language of the unheard” has been taken out of context, seemingly to validate violent riots. Yet the full context reveals he was explaining and expressing empathy for those who felt the need to resort to violence, not condoning it, and followed with insistence that peaceful protests were the best way to bring about social change, arguing that violence was “both impractical and immoral.”
3. On the other hand, we’ve had social media posts condemning violent protests by pointing out that King did not burn or loot, and yet “changed the world.” This of course overlooks the fact that DESPITE being nonviolent and peaceful, King was hated, attacked, jailed, and murdered anyway, setting off a series of nation-wide riots that were far more destructive than any we’ve seen in 2020.
4. Those condemning the current rioting are often the same ones that criticized NFL players for their peaceful protests against police brutality, or told NBA players to “shut up and dribble.” And this includes a president who called Kaepernick a son of bitch for starting the whole thing, and a VP that staged a tax-payer costly walkout to denounce the protests (even though both men have recently declared that they support peaceful protests). The point: blacks tried peaceful protests, and people condemned them and didn’t listen, mischaracterizing their efforts as “dishonoring the troops.” So now we get what we have now. You reap what you sow.
5. I’ve always believed that the need for law enforcement creates a catch-22 with no easy solution. Even if we decrease funding for the police and rightfully put more taxes into such things as localized social, mental health, and educational institutions, the need for police will undeniably remain. Yet all too often the type of people drawn to the job are inspired by a thirst for action, guns, and authority. Not all policemen are like this, of course, just as not all protestors are looters. But even as a white man I have had negative encounters with officers on a “power trip” (and I know well that my white privilege saved me from getting beat down). It seems we need to establish better means of weeding such people out of service (take complaints more seriously!), preventing them from ever working in law enforcement again. (Police the police). This likely requires the dismantling of police unions. And, we must put a focus on training officers on how to de-escalate volatile interactions with citizens and alleged lawbreakers.
6. The outrage surrounding Trump’s bible-toting publicity stunt has led to conservative media outlets mischaracterizing the outrage as people being upset that he held up the bible, thus flaming up divisions between evangelical Christians and everyone else. The outrage, of course, came not from the Bible, but from the fact that brute force and gas was used on mostly peaceful protestors (despite what officials claim, video and eyewitnesses reveal otherwise) in order to clear the way for him to do nothing more than stand in front of a church (that he never goes to) and hold up the Bible. And yes, gas was used. Those that insist that it wasn’t are arguing semantics.
7. The dizzying new round of Confederate monument removal is not “erasing history.” It’s not as though if every monument came down, suddenly the Civil War would not have happened and we’re going to stop teaching it. (Did our history of being part of the British Empire disappear when at the start of the Revolution, Patriots pulled down a monument to King George III?) It is also not revising history. The history of the Civil War was already rewritten by the south after the war in an effort that is labeled the “Lost Cause.” That effort was to rewrite the facts by denying that slavery had anything to do with the war, and that instead of committing treason in the name of maintaining slavery, rebel soldiers had heroically fought for the concept of “states’ rights.” The effort to bring down the monuments is about making sure that history is finally told and learned accurately, fixing the Lost Cause revisions. This requires acknowledging that the monuments were designed to rewrite what the Confederacy fought against the United States for: the perpetuation of a slave-based society and white supremacy.
Personally, I was initially against the removal of the monuments, favoring contextualization. But that ship has sailed. Most communities did not contextualize, and so now the momentum is for removal. Again, you reap what you sow. Thus, I have been more than satisfied watching them come down, particularly in my hometown of Birmingham, and on my campus at the University of Alabama. These efforts are even sweeter because they are in defiance of a stupid state law requiring a $25,000 fine for their removal.
Screw that 25,000 dollars. If the Alabama attorney general has any scruples, he’ll give that fine money to an organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But besides getting those things off my chest, what can I do that will REALLY be productive and help the situation so that this is not like the 1992 LA riots, or Charlottesville; a momentary explosion that dies out with little-to-no change? Tweeting, posting, and giving “thumbs up” on social media is one thing, as is participation in the marches and rallies. These things make us feel good and demonstrate for all to see that we are not racist. But real change is going to require much harder work. It will require whites to not only not be racists, but to be ANTIRACIST; actively doing things in the fight to rid our nation of its original sin. Like many whites, I’m not exactly sure where I fit into that, for now, but I do know that my best talent is my teaching.
As a U.S. history instructor, I have to keep emphasizing the history of how slavery and slave codes made black a legal mark of inferiority, which became cultural. I must show that our Founders failed to acknowledge that African Americans and women had the same natural rights as white men. I must keep discussing the antebellum pro-slavery argument and minstrel shows, revealing how they and other forms of pop culture further solidified white perceptions of black inferiority. I’ve got to keep engaging my students in conversations about how slave laws and patrols, as well as Reconstruction era black codes and paranoia and propaganda about the possibility of black violence all still impact interactions between blacks and the police. I’ve got to hammer home the fact that an effort to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy caused secession and thus the Civil War. I’ve got to get better at demonstrating that the failures of Reconstruction ensured that legal and cultural racism survived the death of slavery, resulting in Jim Crow laws and lynching well into the 20th century, and that glorification of the Confederacy was part of that effort. I must do more to demonstrate that movies and then TV throughout much of the mid 1900s portrayed blacks in ways similar to antebellum minstrel shows, ensuring that such inferior conceptions of blacks survived. I must continue to teach that the peaceful protests of the 50s and 60s were met with violence and murder, begetting rioting and looting across the country. And I’ve got to do more to make sure students understand that redlining and gerrymandering still plague us, and that the result of ALL this history explains why blacks today still face fewer opportunities and systemic barriers to progress.
Yes, I have to do all these things and more, and do so to the utmost of my abilities. I encourage all history teachers to do the same. Our job is even more important now, it’s part of the solution.
I still feel, as did MLK, that you can teach all of this and still emphasize that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Our job is to keep it bent that way when forces try to send us backwards, as they so often do. I insist on remaining optimistic about our
nation and what it can achieve. To me, Obama’s speech at Selma’s Pettus Bridge is the perfect model for how our nation’s history should be taught.
Lastly, please let me indulge in an effort at shameless self-promotion, but also in a statement of regret. This past month LSU Press published American Discord; The Republic and Its People in the Civil War Era, (edited by Megan L. Bever, Lesley J. Gordon, and Laura Mammina) a book meant as a festschrift to celebrate the career and scholarship of my PhD mentor, George C. Rable. My chapter examines the contemporary newspaper coverage of the African American 54th Massachusetts regiment’s famed attack on Fort Wagner during the Civil War. A condensed version of the essay is also the current cover story of the Civil War Monitor magazine (summer issue) which has just hit bookstores and news shelves this week. The appearance of both versions of the essay has become more timely now than I envisioned when they went to press, as the central thesis of both is that the Civil War era partisan press disagreed on the merits of African American soldiers, because they disagreed on the issue of black citizenship rights and the value of black lives.
But here’s my regret: publication in the magazine required considerable editing to shorten the length, and in the process, I left out an explicit historical connection with modern police brutality. My overall point still remains, but I wish like heck that in an effort at brevity I had not dropped the actual words “police brutality” from the last paragraph in the magazine, as they appear in the book version.
Another regret involves the Frederick Douglass quote with which I started this post. The book version of my essay includes the famed black abolitionist’s words, bemoaning the fact that so many soldiers in the 54th had to die in order to prove the manhood of their race, get America’s attention, and to move forward on issues of race.
Taylor, Arbery, and Floyd are destined to become martyrs, just as were the men of the 54th Massachusetts that gave their lives attacking the Confederate bastion at Fort Wagner, S.C. The shame is that Douglass’s words are sadly just as timely and relevant today as they were 157 years ago.
And with that, I’ll go back to listening.