Well, it’s the end of February. It’s the end of Black History Month. And for many people, white and black,
“the end” couldn’t have come sooner.
In fact, many wish there would be an end to even mentioning black history in this country at all.
“Why,” I hear irritated Americans ask, “why do you have to keep talking about “it?”
The “it” is, of course, America’s ignominious and wretched treatment of African-Americans in America.
The fact is, America does not want to talk about the horrors that Black people have endured, and the enormous contributions they (we) made to this country, in spite of the horrible treatment received here. When people have approached me asking why we don’t “let it alone” and “forget it,” I ask them, “Is the world supposed to forget the Holocaust? Would you want that?”
Of course not, they say quickly. How absurd to ask such a question.
Why then, I ask, do you think we should forget …or even learn …the history of African-Americans here? The horror for this race of people has been continuous, and nobody seems to care. It is easy and self-aggrandizing to talk about what the Muslims (ISIS) does to innocent people – and make no doubt: ISIS is a horrible organization.
But ISIS is no more cruel and mean and practitioners of barbaric behavior than were the Nazis under Hitler …and Americans under the shield of the U.S. Constitution and the Holy Bible.
The treatment of African-Americans in this history is the history of their holocaust. Denying it and ignoring it will not erase that reality.
In an article in the The New York Times Magazine on February 26, 2015, author David Amsden wrote a fascinating story of African American history in Louisiana …and about a white man who finally “got it” and built, with his own money, the first slavery museum in this nation. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?emc=edit_tnt_20150226&nlid=54450187&tntemail0=y&_r=1)
The white man’s name is John Cummings …and the slavery museum he has constructed is the Whitney Plantation. The museum, the article says, is located on land where “slaves worked for more than a century.” While I have always felt that what happened in America was comparable to what happened at Auschwitz, Amsden points out that when the museum opened in December, 2014, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, said out loud what I had felt for the longest time.
I once suggested to an irate white friend of mine that this country was built upon the backs of black slaves. The reason why is no different than is the reason corporations have taken work away from Americans and shipped it overseas…those who make money want to make it for as little money as possible. Slaves made the slavocracy wealthy, and the slave owners were the better for it. This nation flourished because of slave labor. And when slavery ended, a system called “convict leasing” was instituted in order to continue the building of America for pennies on the dollar.
It’s called capitalism.
Part of what Cummings includes in his slavery museum is history that is never talked about anywhere in this country. He is building a memorial which is sure to be provocative; he is dedicating it to the victims of the “German Coast Uprising.” In 1811, “at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans.” The area was called the “German Coast” because there were a large number of German immigrants who lived there. The slaves, writes Amsden, were subdued after two days. Ninety-five of them died, “some during the fighting and some after the show trials that followed.”
But here’s the thing I didn’t know: “As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is not Jackson Square in the French Quarter.”
Yes, America, that is what our “exceptional” country did. And yes, America, it was barbaric…
When I visited South Carolina, Charleston to be exact, I remember being at once fascinated by the gorgeous Southern mansions in the city …and angry that there was no mention of slavery at all. I knew that those homes had probably been built by slaves, but our guide, dressed in a Confederate uniform, seemed not to care. It wasn’t an issue. The tour allowed those who would to slip into the fantastic and romantic fairy tale called “The South,” ‘where beautiful young white women, all trying to be as alluring as the fictional Scarlett O’Hara, were courted by handsome white men.
In that fairy tale, what is left out is that far too often, those handsome white men had violated, raped, black women in the slave quarters. They worried about their women being raped by black men, but the truth is, they were doing the raping and there was little to nothing black men could do about it.
In spite of the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal,” America never intended to treat black people as “equal,” and for the most part, still does not. The belief that America is a “white man’s country” is a sentiment just underneath the craw of white people who would rather forget America’s holocaust. Amsden notes, as have other authors, that the White House and the Capitol were built largely by slaves. Nobody ever mentions it. Roads were built by black people; crops were planted and harvested by black people. Every single gain black people have made has been made by the emission of blood, sweat and tears.
Every single gain.
So, Black History Month is ending and people will fall back into the arms of denial, ever waiting to make this country feel better and to believe in its “exceptionalism.” The dratted mention of black people rising above racism will be stowed away for another year, although bits and pieces of the history of that racism will continue to fall out of storage and irritate people yet another day.
We cannot forget it.
We need the slavery museum, yes and an American Holocaust Museum as well.
I will visit this Whitney Slavery Museum…but I will also keep on trying to find what it is I can write that will make the hardened hearts of Americans get a tad softer and let Truth in. America is ill; racism is an illness, after all, and no serious illness goes away without treatment. The treatment for the denial which has covered America’s history is Truth.
Perhaps the Whitney Slavery Museum, built by a white man who “gets it,” will begin to make it so that denial is finally swept away and America can look at its history and not deny it, but embrace it and pull from it the strength that always comes after a serious illness has been beaten.
The voices of those who have died making America great, I am sure, cry out from their graves. I am hoping that more of us will cry out while we are yet alive …and put this history in its proper place within the story of America.
It will strengthen us and …make us truly exceptional.
A candid observation …