America’s Denial of Black History

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 …

 

 

 

What America Values

At first, it didn’t hit me.

It was the holiday season; Christmas was fast approaching, and retailers wanted profits.

So, three or four days before Christmas, some of them announced that they would keep their doors open, extend their hours, to accommodate shoppers. Kohl’s would be open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Macy’s would be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Stores opened on Thanksgiving to give shoppers a head start.

They wanted to be sure to please their patrons. On the surface, if one was a shopper, that seemed like a nice gesture.

But then it hit me. States all over this nation sought to restrict the days and hours during the day that people could vote in the mid-term elections in 2014.

We are important enough, in other words, to accommodate when business wants our money, but we are not important enough to accommodate when we try to exercise the right we have as Americas to vote.

For shopping, there is some understanding that people might find it hard to get to the stores because of their busy schedules.

For voting, no such understanding is given. The sentiment is, or seems to be, “if you want to vote, you will find a way to get there in these proscribed hours and on these proscribed days.”

The movie Selma is released tomorrow. The fight in Selma was about the fight to get the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed …but since then, there has been serious, organized opposition to that law, which has resulted in the slow dismantling of all that that law made possible.

Americans are free to spend their money; this nation will help Americans spend their money, but this nation will NOT help people exercise their right to vote.

Shop until you drop …but go sit down somewhere and don’t complain if you can’t get to the polls on the limited days and times which the government has made possible.

How come some Americans don’t see anything wrong with this picture? How come some …or, I might say, many …Americans scoff at the notion that some people really do need more days and times to vote than others? How come it’s OK to go overboard to get people to spend their money, but not OK to provide more days and times to vote?

All of the voter suppression we have seen is the result of the vast numbers of African-Americans and other marginalized groups having been able to vote in 2008 and 2012. The lives of the marginalized were considered and honored; people who had never voted before finally got the opportunity.

It was glorious. It was democracy, right? It was evidence that “all men are created equal.”  It was about a level playing field. Parity. Equity. Democracy exercised generations after Jefferson et al drew up our Constitution.

But the glory has faded and continues to do so. The powers that be didn’t like marginalized people showing up en masse, causing this country to lean toward true democracy. So, they have worked to dismantle nearly all of the gains made in the Civil Rights movement …while simultaneously making it easier for people to shop using money they do not have so that the rich can get richer and the marginalized can remain marginalized.

At first, it went past me. I missed it. It didn’t hit me.

But I get it now, and it makes me sigh.

Democracy is an ideal and an idea that looks good on paper.

But when the task of making and maintaining democracy is thrown to the people, it might as well be thrown to the wolves.

People don’t want democracy. They want power and money and will do anything they must to obtain it.

I get it now …and I am not impressed. My concept of democracy, where “the least of these” are considered as human and are treated as such, is not real. It never has been.

A candid observation …

 

 

 

 

Two Americas

“If profit is your only metric, man, where …do people stand?”

David Simon, a reporter, author and television producer, asked that, and says that in America there was a class war between the working class and the rich …and that the working class lost.

His words stunned me. There is something about hearing stark truth spoken out loud. If you don’t hear the words, you can pretend that things are not as bad as they are. If you’re in a relationship that’s over, you tend to do better, feel better, pretending that things are not as bad as they are until your significant other says, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Once that’s said, pretense is shattered.

That’s what Simon’s words did to me – jostled me into an uncomfortable reality. In America, something has gone horribly wrong, and much of it is because of our economic system which has pushed too many people to the brink of despair.

Simon says that democracy was supposed to be, or is supposed to be, about sharing. Yet, in the grip of capitalism, the notion of sharing has gone missing. If one talks too much about income inequality, or people needing to make a living wage, cries of protest – yelling out “socialism,”   “communism” or worse are heard in full force.

If you keep on and push the argument further, suggesting that Jesus believed in sharing, (some have suggested that Jesus was a socialist in his world view) then you will surely be shot down as a heretic.

And yet, it is clear that something horribly wrong has happened. The Congress, points out Simon, is full of people with good wages and health care; they have lost touch and do not care about – cannot, in fact, relate to – those who work hard and still cannot support themselves and their families …and who do not have health care. They cannot hear the cries of the growing underclass because their quest for more comfort for themselves and their families takes front and center.

Was capitalism supposed to turn out this way?  Conservatives like to quote the Constitution as the reason for all of their beliefs …but do they understand the spirit of that document …or, for that matter, do I? Did I get it wrong? Wasn’t “democracy” supposed to be a form of government that insured some type of equality for all its people?

If I listen to Conservatives or Libertarians, the answer would be a resounding “no.” All of us who have interpreted the Constitution as a document of, for and about economic parity and  “fair chance” of all people would be criticized as being constitutionally ignorant.

Simon says America’s government is a “purchase government.”  Capitalism worked, he says, when more people were, in fact, able to “purchase.” That is not the case anymore; too many people can purchase little to nothing …and from what I’ve learned from listening to economists, our economy cannot be at its best unless large numbers of people can purchase things that they need and some things that they want.

Big money, notes Simon, has purchased much of government. Consider Art Pope, who is said to have purchased much of the government of North Carolina and the result is that the poor, the almost poor …and the “gonna be poor” are suffering and struggling like never before. Simon says there are “two Americas.” Damn if he isn’t spot on. One only has to open one’s eyes to see it. The poor are getting more and more numerous. It’s not just people of color, either. Plenty of white people are in the “poor” category.

I am just beginning to deal with this on a gut level. And it hurts…I think I wanted my government to be better than all governments. I liked living in the myth that justice and the tenets of the Constitution would ultimately prevail.

Apparently, that is not so.

A candid observation …

Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.

 

It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.

 

But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.

 

The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/street-eternal-happiness/celebrating-chinese-new-year-street-eternal-happiness). Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.

 

There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.

 

There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”

 

While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”

 

Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.

 

If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.

 

Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.

 

The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.

 

“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.

 

Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.

 

It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.

 

Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.

 

Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.

 

But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.

 

In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.

 

The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.

 

Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.

 

Capitalism
Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)

 

You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.

 

A candid observation …

 

What Does the Bible Say, Really?

There are some things we just don’t think about.

Susan Thistlewaite, Chicago Theological Seminary professor, author and scholar, gives some sobering information in her latest book, Occupy the Bible. She says that we ought to read the Bible from the perspective of the homeless, the hungry, the economically stressed.

It was from their perspective that Jesus formed his ministry, she says …and the Bible says.

In a workshop she gave, she said, “Student debt is approaching one trillion dollars. That’s more than credit card debt and if the trend continues, in a few years, student debt will be higher than the national debt. We need to read the Bible from that perspective.”

Students are stressed out and depressed. They have gone to school and gotten degrees, only to find that they are not able to get work, or enough money to pay their student loans.”Students are stressed out and depressed,” Thistlewaite said. “Some are committing suicide.”

There are a lot of reasons for the economic state of this nation, but greed is a big one, posits Thistlewaite. Greed has led banks and other financial institutions, including those which dole out student loans, to go haywire, thinking not about the people who are getting the loans they are giving out but instead by the profit they will make off people who are really trying to make an honest living.

Jesus was a revolutionary, primarily because he challenged the Roman government. He didn’t get into trouble because he taught people to love; he got in trouble because he challenged the status quo. He got into trouble because he taught people that the kingdom in which they should seek comfort was the heavenly kingdom, where there was fairness and equality amongst people,  not the earthly kingdom, headed by the Romans, which led people into economic despair and support economic inequality.

“Theology begins where pain is,” says Thistlewaite. And clearly, there is pain amongst the people who are working and still cannot make ends meet. That group includes students, but also the so-called “working poor,” who, in spite of working sometimes two and three jobs, are still struggling to keep their heads above water. The economic state of our nation is slowly wiping out the middle class, and, observes Thistlewaite, there can be no democracy without a middle class.

Our economic dilemma is made all the worse as the issue is argued using the Bible as justification for both liberal and conservative positions. Thistlewaite says that “the Right thinks the Bible supports free market capitalism.” The Left, conversely, uses the Bible to support an economy which supports equal distribution of wealth. Parables, like found in the Book of Matthew 25:14-30, where a wealthy landowner gave three different “slaves” (translated from the Greek “doulos”) rewarded the two who multiplied money given to them, and cast out the one who hid the money given to him, invite two different interpretations, one from the Left, one from the Right. Who, in that parable and others, is doing the will of God, asks Thistlewaite.

One Bible. Two desperately different interpretations …and the odd men out are the struggling, working poor.

We don’t want to think about the state of our economy or what God really demands. It is totally inconceivable to me that anyone would think that God supports poverty or the abject and real suffering that is endured by the working poor, just as it is inconceivable to me that a good God would support racism or sexism or militarism. I grew up believing that a good God wanted all people to be taken care of, that God wanted economic and social justice for all people. Is that naive?

Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, naiveté notwithstanding, seem to support misery, with a very few people being very comfortable at the expense of many poor people suffering. People got into big trouble with God in the Bible for not being hospitable, not taking care of widows and the poor. God didn’t change, did He/She?

There are some things we don’t want to think about it, but we need to. Bottom line, there’s too much suffering caused by economic distress, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world.

A candid observation …

Visit Thistlewaite’s website at http://www.occupythebible.org