When does it stop? When does the institutionalized murder of black Americans come to an end? From where I sit, things don’t look very promising. And why should they? If our history teaches us anything it is that it has been perfectly acceptable to steal and extinguish the lives of black people in this country for 400 years. Our racism is as systemic as any of our ideals, and thus calls into question the very foundational virtues that launched our nation. What was true in 1620 was true in 1750 was true in 1830 was true 1890 was true in 1960 and is true in 2016. Out heritage offers very little to convincingly suggest that black lives make any difference whatsoever – a history of slavery and murder portend a grim future.
As white progressives, we condemn those who perpetrate these heinous acts, and yet so many of sit silently and do nothing. But we MUST act. It is imperative. If we do nothing, are we not complicit in the very crimes which we so disdain?
We MUST act. We must acknowledge white privilege. And we must admit that we have been its beneficiary for four centuries.
We MUST act. We must dispense with any self-congratulatory notions that because we have black friends and elected a black president that things are getting better. They aren’t.
We MUST act. We must understand and adopt the philosophy of #BlackLivesMatter.
We MUST act. We must engage in a meaningful and public discussion about race, despite the consequences.
We MUST act. We must stand beside our black brothers and sisters on the front lines.
Fellow white progressives, the time for luke-warm alliances has come to an end. It is time to put our lives on the line as so many have done before us. There will most certainly be missteps and unintended insensitivity; we will reveal our ignorance.
But we MUST act. How could we do otherwise?
Peace be with you.
I often show images such as these to my APUSH students when we discuss the racism embedded in Reconstruction Era political discourse. While nearly all white Americans (from both sides of the political spectrum) endorsed what we, from a twenty-first century perspective, would consider racist assumptions and stereotypes, the conservative Democrats (especially in the former Confederacy) did so with a particular zeal. This does not seem to surprise my students at all. It makes sense that the people who had fought to preserve slavery would be racists. What they have trouble with is the notion that white Republicans – those who championed emancipation and eventually equality before the law for all Americans – could just as readily embrace the shared racist proclivities of white America. For example, they might support civil, but not social equality; suffrage, but not political determinism.
One of the greatest challenges for students is to distance historical actors from neat and tidy categories. Though we have have a tendency to compartmentalize things for the sake of simplification and easy explanation – seldom does history unfold with clean edges. I am working on a web-course right now that will address the complexities of this era – tailored specifically for APUSH and college students. Expect the launch this month….just in time for test prep. See how that works out?
I’ve just finished reading an article in this month’s The Atlantic concerning how surreal things have gotten on college campuses concerning (among other things) potentially hurtful or offensive language in the classroom. It seems that students, in opposition to something called microaggression, have banded together to rid higher education of questionable language that could (unintentionally or not) invoke images of racism, sexism, violence, etc. Their mission is to create a “safe” environment.
The Atlantic finds this disturbing and is concerned that by caving to the hyper-sensitive demands of students we are not only homogenizing education but failing to prepare students for the real world – full of diverse, and yes…hurtful people and opinions.
All of this reassures me that I made the right decision rejecting the traditional professor path and moving on. I promise you that I would not react well to a student dictating what I said in class. I specialize in nineteenth-century United States history and guess what. People said some pretty nasty things back then. Call me crazy, but I think it is important we know exactly what those folks said – in their own words – and to whom they said it. Who knows…? Maybe we might learn something.
Back when I was at UC Riverside, I taught a class in Reconstruction Era history. On the syllabus, I mentioned – in a very short paragraph on the syllabus – that language and images would come up that most would (and should) find very disturbing. But that was it. Trust me, some things were mentioned in class, uttered or shown only in the context of the history, that I would never consider conveying outside of the classroom. And I never had a single indecent in which a student complained to the department or came to me in distress.
Of course, I was thinking of the obvious. It turns folks can construe nearly anything as offensive. So who knows what I might have said that ruffled some feathers…
To my fellow educators – what is your experience with these triggers? Are things as bad as the article makes it seem? Let’s talk…
Like many of you, I have been preoccupied with the recent murders in Charleston. At first, I thought about writing something that historicized modern racism through a reflection on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and white resistance to the Civil Rights movement. But instead of commenting specifically as a historian, I would rather comment generally as a human being. If you want to get up to speed on the history – here’s a comprehensive syllabus that has been going around on the usual social media sites. Read these books. Repost the link. You need to.
The time has long past for all Americans to wake the fuck up and understand that racially motivated violence is a deep-seated part of our national culture. And it does not seem to be going anywhere. Some have noted over the last few days, including Jon Stewart and others, that many Americans pretend racism has almost entirely faded into the past, that we have overcome a troubling part of our history and have healed our racial wounds. As such, we interpret these events as isolated tragedies perpetrated by unstable individuals acting alone.
This self-congratulatory and self-inflicted ignorance must end. Now. Because you and I both know that it will not be long before we’re reading yet another story about yet another racially motivated murder.
I speak especially to silent white progressives. Stop pretending. Yes, your kids have black friends. Yes, you elected a black president. Good for you. But our nation’s murderous racist reality has not changed. And understand that nothing is ever going to happen to stop this despicable savagery until we can all have an open, honest, and very public conversation about race. Such a discussion is going to be unsettling. It is going to be uncomfortable. But it must take place. Your complacency is killing people.
I have had enough. And I suspect you have as well. So do something.
There is a lot of scuttlebutt going on around the Internet these days concerning a well-known ditty most usually associated with the neighborhood ice cream truck. Many are calling for the song to be stricken from the rolling treat dispensaries.
The viral account suggests that the song is reminiscent of late-nineteenth century minstrel shows containing (as late-nineteenth century minstrel shows usually did) offensive racial slurs.
It turns out that there are many versions of the American folk song in question that date all the way back to the early 1800s – the two most unfortunate of which (from the Jim Crow Era, no less) are called Nigger Love a Watermelon, Ha! Ha! Ha! and Zip Coon. Yes, that’s right.
There are other versions that lack the racism but are alarming nonetheless. For instance, one rendition contains the lyric: “she pissed and she farted and she shit on the floor, the gas from her ass blew the knob off the door.” Isn’t that lovely? And then of course, there are benign variants of the tune as well. The Turkey in the Straw version of the song, the one most certainly (hopefully) intended by modern-day ice cream truck operators, does not, as far as I can tell, seem readily offensive.
Many versions of these old American folk standards have troubling lyrics, and some have unsettling origins. Buuuuuutttttt….I wonder if we are pushing the issue here. If pressed, one could find racist versions of all kinds of tunes produced during or before the twentieth century. Does anyone remember the mockingly vicious and racist take on the wholesome 1950s Daniel Boone television theme song? I remember kids singing this one in grade school. But that was a long time ago. So let’s not forget that today there are real issues concerning race and the legacy of slavery in this country: vast economic disparities, de facto segregation, etc, etc. Perhaps it’s best that we focus on these issues instead of sensationalizing a silly song. What are your thoughts?
PS – my neighborhood ice cream truck plays Deutschland über Alles. Should I be concerned?