Amid the racial inequities revealed through the coronavirus pandemic and the multiple killings of unarmed Black people by police, the United States has come to “[a] moment of reckoning,” as described by Dr. Cornel West, who has held professorships at Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University. Indeed, it is high time for this country and for each of us as individuals to reckon with both the systemic and foundational racism which permeates our country today.
Each of us, particularly white Americans, must confront the way in which we have been socialized to view this country, its professed values and most importantly, our history. Our interpretation of history shapes our view of the world today by explaining why our world is the way it is. In order to understand our history, we must discard the tinted glasses of nationalism and not only accept the uncomfortable truths which we often overlook, but to also actively challenge the injustices that face our world today. My goal is not necessarily to explore these truths in depth, but rather to explain the historical errors we all too often commit in our study of American history, and how an accurate understanding of our history can give new breath to social movements such as Black Lives Matter.
In debating friends and relatives about the way we interpret and memorialize our history, whether it be Columbus genocide of Native (or more appropriately, First) Americans or George Washington’s ownership and abuse of slaves, I’ve often heard, “But it’s history! You can’t change what happened.” I can only concede that we cannot change the fact that these events happened, but we can change how we view these events. History is not an “objective” recollection of past events — it is the narrative or, more accurately, the perspective from which we remember these events. This perspective currently tends to overlook the foundational influence of white supremacy, which continues to shape our political landscape, with the Republican Party still running on the “Southern Strategy,” despite supposedly apologizing for appealing to racial grievances in 2005. We discuss the racial politics of the 1960s and 1970s as a thing of the past, despite the all-too-familiar images of police across the country clamping down on largely nonviolent protests.
Consequently, the historical narrative through which we view the past shapes how we view our world today. It is through our historical sense that we recall the way in which the current levers of power are rationalized, and how injustice continues to affect us today. When we lose our historical sense, we fail to recognize the similarities between past and present injustices and ultimately, the continuity between them.
Our recollection of history today is, as late historian Howard Zinn describes, “built around veneration of the ‘great men’ of the past: the political leaders, the enterprising industrialists.” In our deification of these “great men,” we ignore the plight of the downtrodden throughout our history.
This way of viewing our history is best exemplified through Mount Rushmore, a monument built on stolen Native American land. We venerate Washington and Thomas Jefferson for fighting for the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and yet they forced hundreds of human beings to relinquish their culture or suffer violence. Theodore Roosevelt, despite being hailed as a progressive reformer, was also an ardent imperialist who “congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century.” Abraham Lincoln is lauded today as the president who valiantly led the country through the Civil War, hailed as the harbinger of freedom for the six million slaves in the South. Yet Lincoln himself said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” admitting he acted out of political and military necessity. In deifying Lincoln, we overlook the blood, sweat and tears shed by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who spent their lives actively fighting against the institution of slavery and laying the seeds for its destruction.
In our history and in our culture today, the United States prides itself as a defender of liberty, but in our celebration of liberty we overlook just how our “freedoms” have been achieved. We discuss “rights” and “freedoms” as if they have been bestowed upon us from Heaven to Earth. But as an honest and critical reinterpretation of history shows us, human rights are and have always been won through struggle against the ruling power base, not in conjunction with it. Hence, we arrive at essayist George Santayana’s timeless adage that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and as uncomfortable as it may be for some to accept, the United States is repeating the past. Since our very founding, systemic racism has been part of the fabric of the United States and has merely taken on more covert, rational-legal forms.
Once we critically and honestly examine the history of the United States, we come to see that our history is not one of universal liberty and inevitable progress, but rather one in which the oppressed, whether they be Black, women, Native Americans or organized labor, have consistently and tirelessly struggled to obtain basic human rights. Upon intensely examining our history and recognizing its continuity, it is fitting and proper that we regard the Black Lives Matter movement as the contemporary incarnation of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and as the latest reformers who endeavor to make the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” a reality for all people. In doing so, we ourselves will come to grapple with not just our own history, but the present in which we live today. Through this, we can learn from the evils of the past and we can lay the foundations for a new history.
Colin Mangan is an undeclared sophomore.