Empathy Through History
You are in 1860 America, and an enslaved black person in Alabama. Legally you are property and your humanity is denied. You work in the fields dawn till dusk, which during the summer means 16-hour days of backbreaking labor. On Sundays, your one day off, you attend the white people’s church. Sitting in the rear, you hear the pastor admonishing you to obey your master and pronounce Biblical justifications for slavery. Property cannot be legally married. So if you and your partner want a commitment ceremony, perhaps you’ll be permitted to follow the tradition of jumping over a broomstick together. But that doesn’t mean that your spouse will still be with you tomorrow. If you have children, there is no guarantee you will keep them. You might see your husband, wife, son, or daughter being seized to be displayed and sold on the auction block. If you are a woman, you are subject to the logical conclusion of sexism as well as racism: You may be raped by your legal owner, and raise daughters knowing that they will probably be raped at some point, too. You may be raped regardless if you are someone’s spouse, and you might give birth to your master’s child, who would also be enslaved. You almost certainly will be beaten for something. You may have an experience like Fannie Griffin, an enslaved teenager in South Carolina: “Missy Grace was mean to us….When she go to whip me, she tie my wrists together with a rope and put that rope through a big staple in the ceiling and draw me up off the floor and give me a hundred lashes. I think about my old mammy heap of times now and how I seen her whipped, with the blood dripping off her.” For you, America is not a bastion of democracy, a noble experiment in liberty. It is a place where you see your mother being whipped bloody.
You could try to escape, but you would do well to not stop running until you reach Canada: According to the Supreme Court in 1857, whether slave or free, black people were not citizens, and were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” If your skin is not white, then freedom does not guarantee security.
You are in 1865 America living in South Carolina, and now “forever free.” You can search for your missing wife, husband, and/or children. You can leave the plantation. You can go North. But you better do something, because if local authorities consider you a vagrant, you can be arrested and sentenced to hard labor. That means compulsory work at a farm or factory, without pay, freedom, or rights — just like slavery. Or you’ll be fined and sent to work somewhere until that fine was paid. But, when the fine is about fully paid, you may be accused of something else, fined again, and have your sentence extended — repeatedly. Or, on the day your fine was finally paid, you may just be told to keep working anyway or you’ll be shot right then and there.
You heard that the US government confiscated about 800,000 acres of property from Confederates, intending to distribute it to you and other freedmen. But that will never happen. The Freedmen’s Bureau is established to try to help you, but it is underfunded, and only 900 agents are sent to the entire South, an area larger than Western Europe.
You are in 1868 America, and you are a freedman in Tennessee. You are told you can vote in this year’s election, and you intend to do just that. In the days leading up to it, you hear about a gang of horsemen wearing white linens, intimidating and even lynching black people who aim to vote. Tonight, you hear ominous galloping approaching your house. You and your family are hustled outside. The horses gallop in a circle around you, the riders bearing torches. One whips you, and another whips your wife. One points a gun at your head, telling you that he better not see you at the polls, or you’ll never see your family again. They’ll be watching. You would protect yourself with a firearm, but it is illegal for black people to own one. Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment which intended to grant you the right to vote, poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation will ensure that you do not. Same for your children. Same for your grandchildren, too, except perhaps as a middle-age adults.
You are in 1898 America, and living in Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington is a vibrant, thriving biracial town in which two-thirds of the population is African American. Although slavery ended only 33 years ago, black people in Wilmington are prosperous business owners, members of the police and fire departments, and are represented in government both as elected representatives and civil service workers. Without any help from national or state authorities, in a land where people like you were property only three decades earlier, despite the racist doubts, expectations, and the recent “separate but equal” ruling from the Supreme Court affirming segregation, you and your people have made it. And that has infuriated some whites. 1898 is an election year, and whites are intent on regaining total control. Their campaign tactic is to conjure the chronic white racist fear of black men raping white women. But it is not racial mixing per se that bothers the white people: after all, the ancestry of the average African American is around 22% European. That is because white Southern men had no problem with rape, no problem with racial mixing — as long as it involved white men and black women.
In Wilmington in 1898, in response to racist demagoguery against African Americans, North Carolina’s single black-owned newspaper suggests that relationships or liaisons between black men and white women were more likely consensual relationships rather than rape. Such a liable will be avenged.
You voted in Wilmington today, but your vote did not matter, because white Democrats have stuffed the ballot boxes. Winning the election is not enough for the white supremacists, though. Now, a mob of 2000 whites is burning down the building housing the black-owned newspaper, running every single black officeholder out of town, shooting black people on the streets, and driving others into the swamps. Black-owned businesses are ruined; hundreds of African Americans are killed. No whites are punished. You and 2100 other black people leave Wilmington to start all over again. Wilmington changed to a white majority city practically overnight. You know that black people are accused of being lazy, ignorant, derelict, and unable to make anything of yourselves since emancipation. But when, as in the case of Wilmington, you prove that despite the most severe obstacles and with no outside help whatsoever, your people can achieve success, then you get penalized for that, too.
You are in 1914 America living in Georgia, and you see newspaper headlines announcing a war in Europe. In the window of a nearby bookstore, you see displayed a new book by Charles McCord, The American Negro as Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent. Taking a glance, you see that in 350 pages, McCord examines why you and your people are culturally and biologically deviant, reliant on government, and prone to criminality. It is because your race is inferior, as allegedly demonstrated by modern science. McCord’s attitudes are fairly mainstream. But, you think, active this very year is W.E.B. DuBois, the towering black intellectual who was the first black person to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Also Carter Woodson, the black historian who was awarded Harvard’s second Ph.D and who would later propose Black History Month. And there is Mary McLeod Bethune, whose life’s work is founding schools and educating poor black children in the South. You recall Daniel Hale Williams, the black pioneer heart surgeon. And Booker T. Washington, who has dedicated his life to teaching black self-sufficiency, and of George Washington Carver, the innovative scientist whom Time called “The Black Leonardo.” The latter two rose from being born as someone’s property to global prominence. McCord presents his bigoted book, but your community presents living evidence falsifying it.
The American Army wants you in World War I, but not next to white Americans. Jim Crow segregation is established in the South, and recently was imported into the federal government by patriotic American historian Dr. Woodrow Wilson, known for his enlightened, progressive reforms when he was president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey.
You serve in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, “Harlem’s Hellfighters” –commanded by a white officer, per usual. Arriving in France, you first notice that you are treated like a regular person. No racial epithets. No using the back door to enter a store. White people serve you in restaurants. You do not have to get off the sidewalk for an approaching white person or risk being beaten. White women talk to you, indeed, want to dance with you — and no one is threatening to lynch you. No one seems to mind any of this, except your white American fellow soldiers.
Your regiment sees more action than any other American unit in the war, and never relinquishes an inch of ground to the enemy. The first Americans of any race to win France’s Croix de Guerre are black soldiers of your 369th. Other black soldiers win scores more, in addition to America’s Legion of Merit. But of the more than 350,000 African Americans who serve at the front, no one will be contemporaneously awarded the Medal of Honor.
It is 1918, and after freeing Europe, and feeling free in Europe, you return home to the “land of the free,” which for you still means second-class citizenship. You may think that the bravery, loyalty, and sacrifice demonstrated by black people in the Great War will mean greater equality and opportunity at home. But you are wrong. Virulent American racism is unabated, and segregation is law. Conditions are actually worse than before. Sixty-eight black people are being be reported lynched this year. You learn that some are black soldiers wearing their uniforms, perhaps decorated with the Croix De Guerre or the American Legion of Merit. But that doesn’t matter. In America, they’re merely black. (Next year, after the black veterans return home, there will be 78 reported lynchings.)The murdered black soldiers’ segregationist commander-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson, opposes a proposed federal anti-lynching bill. Vetoing it will be unnecessary, because Congress will fail to pass it.
You want a fresh start after the war, but where should you go? Not to the South, where violent racism is driving out more than a million black people. Perhaps go north? But there were deadly riots against black people in Philadelphia and in its suburbs in 1918. You head west.
You are in 1921 America living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Your home is in the Greenwood District, “Black Wall Street,” the richest black neighborhood in America. Tulsa has a robust African American professional and middle class. Only 56 years after slavery, you and your people have built a rich, vibrant, successful community, not only without help from anyone else, but despite efforts to stifle you. But for white supremacists in Tulsa, just as in Wilmington, your community’s success and prosperity are intolerable. Your pretense to equality is unbearable. Next thing you know, they think, you’ll go after their women.
You hear about a black man accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. That sparks a confrontation outside of the jail between a large white crowd and a large black crowd, the latter intending to prevent a supposed lynching. A shot is fired. Within 24 hours, all 35 blocks of Greenwood have been destroyed by fire and rampaging. Twenty white people, and up to 300 African Americans, have been killed. Even if they proudly admit their role in the riot, no white people are arrested, only black people. Greenwood will never recover. Once again, the people who created a flourishing, stable world within a hostile one have to begin all over again. You consider that the issue is not whether black people are capable of succeeding, but whether they will be permitted to keep and transmit the fruits of their success, or whether every generation will be forced to start from scratch.
You are in 1935 America living in New York, and you are going to catch the popular Ziegfeld Follies show on Broadway. Performing tonight is Josephine Baker, one of the most famous people alive. Baker is a young black dancer, singer, and actor who fled Missouri for France, where her prodigious talent would not be eclipsed by her skin tone. In the past decade, Baker has become an international sensation, and the highest-earning woman in the world. She is the first black woman to star in an international film. Now she will be the first black woman to star in Ziegfeld Follies. Although she has performed for kings and queens and is celebrated throughout Europe and South America, in the 1930s United States, she’s still just black: New York has deigned to permit her to stay at a fine hotel, but only if she uses the servants’ entrance.
You watch Baker’s vibrant, confident, uninhibited performance. Truly, this is a free woman. Black people who are poor, jobless, and who lack formal education, are accused of sloth, stupidity, and incompetence. But if you surpass even white standards of success like Josephine Baker has, do not expect credit. Expect resentment. In a scene tonight designed as a dream sequence, Baker dances closely with four white men. The response to this fearless black women who in her life escapes, criticizes, and then tonight transgresses America’s racial mores, is brutal. Baker is excoriated by the press. Time smears her as a “buck-toothed negro wench.” No black woman ever again stars in the Follies. Baker is glad to return to France. (In 1963 Josephine Baker will be the only woman speaker at the March on Washington and will later be buried in France with full military honors for her contributions to the French Resistance.)
It is 1945, and you are part of the 69th Infantry Division fighting in World War II. You and your men recently captured Leipzig from the Germans. Now your unit is headed into that city for some deserved leisure at an army entertainment center. On reaching the entrance, though, you are told “No n*****s allowed.” The city you liberated from German white supremacists is now occupied by American ones.
Your friend is one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a squad of black fighter pilots assigned to protect the large, slow-moving, white-manned American bombers from being shot down by the German air force. He tells you that after each sortie, the bombers return to their white-only base, and the Tuskegee Airmen go to their separate base, which is commanded by white officers. In this war as in others in America, black and white men can die together, but cannot live together.
As men facing enemy fire, you and your friend are rare among black servicemen. Of the more than 900,000 African Americans to serve in WWII, only 300,000 participate in combat. The rest are assigned service jobs — cooks, custodians, dishwashers. In the Navy, the only roles open to black men are in the mess. Nine hundred thousand serve, but none are awarded the Medal of Honor — until 41 years later.
You return stateside, but you and your fellow black soldiers have changed. You just saved Europe from domination by a brutal regime based on an ideology of racial supremacy and oppression. Now you are returning to a country in which an ideology of racial supremacy severely limits your liberty and daily threatens your life. Despite your sacrifices for democracy overseas, at home there is no democracy for you: you still cannot vote, or even get a cup of coffee at the lunch counter. Your lives are still in danger: You hear about Dabney Hammer, a soldier who returned home to Mississippi. Wearing his uniform resplendent in war medals, a white man approached Hammer, saying: “Oweee, look at them spangles on your chest. Glad you back. Let me tell you one thing you do not forget…you are still a n*****r.”
The year is 1964 — an election year — and you live in Mississippi. You want to vote. Ninety-two years have passed since the 15th Amendment was ratified. You sit down with the county official to register to vote. “Can you recite the US Constitution?” you are asked. “Can you name every county in Alabama?” You cannot. No one can. “Sorry, you failed the test required to get registered.” As you leave, a white man takes your place to register to vote. Soon after, he leaves with his registration card. You notice that he wasn’t given any test.
Now it is 1965, and you join a march in Selma to protest Alabama’s racist voting laws. You are badly beaten and bloodied along with other men and women in the march. But you cannot call the police, because the people who beat you are the police.
Later that year, the Voting Rights Act is passed, the culmination of a decade of vigorous civil rights activism. During that time, countless numbers were assaulted or murdered just to secure the same rights enjoyed by everyone whose skin is not black. (Fifty years later, the US Supreme Court will conclude that voting rights are no longer impaired, and the Voting Rights Act will be vitiated. Right away, some states will mandate a litany of requirements to vote, which disproportionately impact the poor and people of color.)
You are in 1986 America living in Los Angeles. Segregation has been illegal for decades now. But in schools and neighborhoods, racial separation persists. The poor schools and low-income districts are mostly black; affluent schools and areas are mostly white. The police force is predominantly white. Those arrested and in jail are predominantly black, prisoners in the “War on Drugs.” Every week you notice black men disappearing from your street. You see them return and look for work. Not only do they have to support themselves, but they have to pay legal fees and fines. If they do not, they return to jail. But their criminal records make it hard to get a job. Effectively barred from legitimate work, they may be pushed into the illicit economy, where they are subject to further arrest and incarceration, more fees and fines, which reduces again their chance of ever rejoining mainstream society. Unequal schools and neighborhoods are leading to unequal opportunities, producing victims of unequal laws, unequal enforcement, unequal sentences, and unequal outcomes. You witness your neighborhood decay into violence, poverty, and worse — invisibility.
You are in 2016 and living anywhere in the USA. It’s an election year. Perhaps a good time reflection. To most white people, American history is a story of equality, personal freedom, and the march of democracy. But there are missing chapters in that story — which you have lived. For African Americans, America has been a place in which people who looked like you were owned, sold, beaten, raped, then freed and abandoned; in which prosperous communities you built have been crushed, forcing you to start anew every generation; in which laws have been enacted to control you and marginalize you; in which you could not vote until 50 years ago; in which your wartime sacrifices have been repaid with venom and violence; in which your outsized cultural contributions are either criticized or co-opted without credit; in which you must work twice as hard to go half as far, to keep half as much, to be accorded with few accomplishments but to be entirely blamed for not progressing fast enough. That’s American history, too.
You consider an attitude with currency in some quarters, that the rise of an African American as president clearly means the fall of racism. Yet, you notice that it is nearly impossible to read an online article in which the comments section is not infested with vile racial slurs. You note that no black people were nominated for an Oscar for the past two consecutive years, perhaps because 94% of Academy voters are white, and only 2% are black. You read that among the 500 largest American companies, there are only 5 black CEOs. You observe that despite black people being 13% of the total population, the prison population is 40% African American. That indeed, the US now imprisons more black people than South Africa did during apartheid. You cannot ignore that within the past 2 years, more than 100 unarmed black people have been killed by police. In most cases no one is punished. You see that black people and supportive whites feel obliged to vociferously remind America that “black lives matter” since the issue seems in doubt.