Memory, Ideology and the Normalization of Injustice
Sometimes white folks can be truly precious.
And by precious, I don’t mean cute like a three-year-old dressed in an Easter bonnet, holding a balloon and beaming a toothy grin for their parent’s camera.
I mean precious, as in fragile and innocent.
And not innocent as in “not guilty,” but innocent as in naive.
Innocent in the way James Baldwin meant it when he described us in The Fire Next Time:
“These innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Quite so, even more than a half-century since the time Baldwin first set those words to paper.
White Americans have long wanted deliverance from the history of our country, even as we insist it barely happened, or at least not like that, or at least it was a long time ago, so can’t we just put it behind us and move on?
And thus, the people who made mantras of “Remember the Alamo” or “Remember Pearl Harbor” — both of which suggested the wonders of perpetual recollection — now feign amnesia or at least insist upon the prerogative of forgetting when it comes to the less sanguine parts of our history.
American chattel slavery happened a long time ago. I never owned slaves. Get over it.
July 4, 1776, happened a long time ago. I never rebelled against the British. But we must remember that and celebrate it every year.
Oh, and here, hold this tiny flag and wave it while we set off fireworks in homage to the brave revolutionaries who gave us our new nation many years ago.
(Psssst, but some of them owned slaves).
Shut up, that was many years ago.
And yes, I know, this selective memory is not a uniquely white American phenomenon. I would imagine all people and in every society indulge similar conceits: uplifting the parts of their national pasts that flatter them and omitting those that bring them up short. It’s a human impulse, which is why we so often forget the times we’ve hurt people in our lives, but rarely fail to recall all the good we’ve done, or think we have.
Likewise, the systems of formal oppression that governed this nation and the colonies before it for three-and-a-half centuries are not the only ones to ever have existed. Domination and subordination have marked the histories of all societies and peoples since the first contacts between differing tribes of humanity.
But to think such a caveat as this somehow acquits us or lessens our inculpation in the crimes upon which our society was built is, once again, precious.
And by precious, this time, I do mean child-like though once again not cute.
Child-like, as in similar to the kid who breaks a neighbor’s window playing baseball and when caught insists to his mother that he ought not to be blamed for the mishap. After all, Billy was playing ball too. To which, as I recall, having once been this child, the mother responds with something about a bridge, and whether one would consider jumping from it, were young William to do so in the manner of a damned fool.
And I know, I know.
In this case, we insist, we didn’t even break the window. Some people a hundred years ago or 500 years ago did (because we like to move the injustice timeline back as far as possible, ignoring that slavery was literally two 77-year old black women, back-to-back, ago). So we’re not to blame at all.
And I get that. But we still inherit the legacy of that which has come before. Which is a point we have no problem digesting (or celebrating) when it comes to inheriting money from a relative even though we didn’t earn it; or simply inheriting the legacy of the nation and the riches thereof. We like the good and accept it without reservation, even as we seek to ignore the bad and claim it has no bearing on us.
So back to my point now.
As I was saying, our national crimes are not unique, but they are ours. Sadly, rather than reflect honestly upon these, let alone rectify them, we have long preferred to talk about the evils that other men do.
This is why high school students in America are far more likely to graduate, having read the words of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel than Olaudah Equiano or Nat Turner. It’s why we know more about the Holocaust of European Jewry than the horrors of the Middle Passage (which term some of y’all are legit Googling right now) or the extirpation of indigenous peoples, celebrated by whites as proof of providence in the affairs of the new nation.
It’s why Washington DC got a museum commemorating the European Holocaust many years before a museum of African American history and culture, to say nothing of the American Holocausts (plural), by which name we are not even allowed to refer to them.
Or rather we can, but then we get lectured about how it was different and didn’t involve mass murder on an orchestrated scale in the same way, and how the Nazis were simply worse.
And how this…
…is not even remotely like this:
…even though Dachau (unlike say, Auschwitz or Chelmno whose purposes were explicitly exterminationist) was mostly a forced labor camp as with Oak Alley and all other American plantations.
Indeed, to even suggest a similarity of type, putting aside scale for a second, is sure to raise the hackles of many and seem deeply grievous to still more.
Because we have been taught to view one of these as a repository of a pain so great that only monsters might seek to trivialize it, while allowing the other to be transformed into a nostalgic theme park in which docents emphasize the ball gowns, parasols, and manners of the camp guards, while barely acknowledging the prisoners at all.
And where they will gladly do all of this while serving you chicken salad sandwiches and sweet tea, and all of it in a place where you can even get married amid oak trees made crooked by gravity.
And by gravity.
But once again, regardless of whether one accepts the functional equivalence of these evils somewhat misses the point. Because again, although our national crimes are not unique, they are ours.
And so, if you insist upon a taxonomy of historical awfulness, and having done so decide that ours does not rank among the worst, so be it. But if you are an American, it is our awfulness to which you must cast your eyes, because it is that which is buried in the soil upon which your house sits, as with mine.
To look elsewhere for signs of man’s inhumanity to man while glossing over that which marks the history of one’s own nation is grotesque. And we would see it as such were someone in a Berlin cafe to do the same, to breeze past the fires of Treblinka so as to ruminate upon the depravities of Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek, the destruction of the Greenwood district in Tulsa or the expulsion of a million Mexican American citizens of the United States in the 1930s.
Or rather, we wouldn’t be bothered by these deflections, but only because we would have absolutely no idea what that German was ranting about, having never been taught even as much history about our own nation as the typical tourist already knows upon their arrival here.
But while the pain we have caused is not unique by any method of accounting, there is something genuinely different and infinitely worse about America than those other places where inequity and iniquity have been practiced, perfected and sedimented in place.
Namely, it is only here — or at least it was first on these shores — that a nation crafted its ideological cornerstone in such a way as to provide an almost airtight rationalization for that pain and its perpetuation.
It is here, if not alone then surely more than most, where a historical timeline littered with the bodies of the despised and the dreams of the defeated rests side by side with a poetics that seeks above all else to make of the mess a trifle.
Because it is only here that the idea of getting what one deserves has been elevated to a place of secular gospel.
It is here that we are told, and each one of us is to be sure, that wherever one ends up in the race of life is a matter of one’s own doing, or not doing. Anyone can make it if they try, and if they didn’t, the fault is theirs alone.
The notion of rugged individualism, of men and women, untethered from their social context, though it has never described an actual state of being in human history, nonetheless found a home here. And once embedded in the national ethos as Genesis 1:1 in the Bible of Americanism, all talk of justice and injustice could be relegated to the margins.
If wherever you end up is all about you, and if anyone can make it if they try, then if where you ended up is on the plantation one may reasonably infer that you had earned your place there, whether in the master’s quarters or the cabins out back.
And surely, once the chains of enslavement were lifted, you had no excuse. Because inertia is only to be understood as a property of the physical universe. When it comes to things like economics, the past has no bearing upon the present, the slate is wiped clean every new generation, and the notion of cumulative advantage or disadvantage is seen as an absurdity.
This is how people can end up racist in 2019.
And by racist I don’t mean like those boys in Charlottesville — the ones screaming Nazi slogans whom the president wants us to believe were merely history buffs seeking to preserve statuary — but racist nonetheless.
Because contrary to the old slogan that “you have to be taught how to hate” (or the line from the song in South Pacific from which that slogan was paraphrased), learning to hate, or at least to fear and to judge and to seek to keep others in their presumptive place, is quite a bit easier than that.
It doesn’t require that anyone sit you on their knee and fill your head with bigotry. Indeed, and this is what should keep us up at night, it requires little active instruction at all.
It only requires that you look around, see the vast disparities of well-being that continue to track color, and then combine a simple recognition of these with the lessons you were taught about getting out what you put in.
Because once the subjective propaganda of rugged individualism is combined with the objective reality of social stratification, it is but a small step requiring little in the way of mental gymnastics, to conclude that those on the top must deserve their status and those on the bottom theirs.
And having learned no history, or having learned to ignore it, one can wash one’s hands of the crimes and move on.
No, racism is not un-American, and its present uptick (if we can even call it that) is hardly a deviation from an otherwise healthy norm. Given our history, and how we have been taught to understand inequality as merely a reflection of personal responsibility taken or shirked, the true deviation is when we turn against racism.
To accept racism is quintessentially American. To rebel against it is human.
We have more than enough Americans already.