Banned Histories of Race in America
Black History Month Edition
You’ve probably heard “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”. Well, this country has been trying to forget its history since the beginning—especially its history around race. And all that repetition sure is starting to feel like condemnation.
In the name of the Holy War on CRT, libraries are being emptied. Teachers are being fired, some threatened with arrest. A bill was recently introduced by a republican congressman that was only the single sentence, “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2023.”
I’m a journalist and my long-running column Racisms can be currently found in The Bollard. I work frequently with The Moth, not only as a Mainstage storyteller, but as an interviewer, Radio Hour host, and contributor to the books The Moth Presents: All These Wonders and the NYT Bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from The Moth. I am also an internationally touring musician performing in the Black American Folk Tradition. And I’m the creator and host of the podcast 99 Years, a Black exploration of the deliberate creation of the whitest state in the nation.
This is all to say that I know the value of a good story. I also know the value of a bad one.
For example, there’s a widely believed American story about slavery. It goes something like “Black folks just sat passively in bondage for hundreds of years until the Union won the Civil War and un-slavery’d them.”
You can see how that myth of the slave as docile, mindless herd animal would lend itself to the stereotypes of lazy and stupid Blacks deserving of whatever brutality a superior white person felt then or feels now to be appropriate. From that myth, you might even be able to extrapolate why white doctors then and white medical students now frequently believe that Black folks have a higher pain threshold and thicker skin.
But that race of passive, dimwitted, nameless slaves is a bad story. It only works if you do things like empty libraries and fire teachers. It’s a bad story because just the slightest glance at the facts causes the entire thing to fall apart. I mean, it’s very hard to believe the implied idea that Black folks really didn’t understand what freedom even was when you learn about the hundreds of thousands of “runaway slave” ads in newspapers of the era or the more than 300 full-on “slave revolts” that probably didn’t make it into your history books. That’s the point where Black humanity starts to become visible, where our lives start to become just a little more real. And where the facts start to conflict with what you might believe. And “How did we get here?” and “Why didn’t I know that?” start to feel like they might have the same answer.
Because it’s Presidents Day, let me show you one more bad story real quick.
You know the one about how sure, the Founding Fathers were enslavers, but that’s just how it was back then! Something about how they didn’t know any better or we shouldn’t be putting the advanced morals of today on the simpler times of yesterday? It’s not as though the Founding Fathers knew they were on the wrong side of justice, right?
Again, that story is a bad one because it only works if you don’t know that enslaver and third US President Thomas Jefferson once wrote specifically on the issue of slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
It’s pretty difficult to grant someone benefit of the doubt when they own up to being the bad guy.
Anyway, I’ll be undoing popular myths and posting Banned Histories of Race in America here for free twice a month and weekly for paid subscribers. Paid subscribers will also get access to a monthly 15-minute morning micro concert live on zoom starting at 8:45 AM the first Friday morning of every month.
Thank you for your time and I hope you subscribe.
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