Tuesday, December 06, 2016

a nation of immigrants and slaves

Immigration has been on my mind a lot lately, given ongoing talk of Trump's wall and the recent rise in bias incidents aimed at immigrants around the country.

I live in a city with a large immigrant population. Many of my neighbors in the city are here without documentation. So last night, I shared a short essay on Facebook on the welcome my ancestor Benjamin Nye received when he arrived on these shores in 1620. It was standard fare for the argument: We are a nation of immigrants, and should welcome other immigrants as we were.

This morning an acquaintance of mine left a comment on my post. "We are not only a nation of immigrants," he reminded me. "We are also a nation of slaves. Not everyone shared the American dream, though we all share in the American experience."

As Fahim reminded me, his ancestors didn't come here looking for a new beginning and the promise of freedom. They arrived in the cargo holds of ships. America wasn't William Bradford's city on a hill for them; it was a place where they were beaten and even hanged, until as late as the 1950s. That we don't tell their stories in our schools and worse, that we actively try to suppress their stories, is to our shame as a nation.

It's true that Lincoln officially ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and that the United States declared the practice unconstitutonal with the Fourteenth Amendment. It's also true that no proclamation or constitutional amendment can alter a practice as deeply entrenched in the culture and society as slavery was.

Thus the United States gave up on Reconstruction after 10 years, and pent-up resentment over the loss of white status led to all manner of repressive measures intended to return blacks in the South to the place they held prior to the Civil War, within the constraints of the new laws. Sharecropping was just another form of slavery, as were prisons like Parchman Farm. Voter suppression and poll taxes kept blacks from exercising their right to vote, and soon returned control of the Southern states and their congressional representation to whites, after a brief period of black representation.

And of course the Ku Klux Klan and its reign of terror drove those blacks north who could make the journey, to seek not better economic opportunities but basic survival. Up North, black laborers were viewed as unwanted competition by white laborers who within a generation or less after immigrating could assimilate because they looked a lot like their neighbors.

So yes, in the days of Jim Crow justice, blacks were free, but it wasn't much different from the days of slavery. Technically it was no longer illegal to teach blacks to read and write, but their schools were badly underfunded, dilapidated and worse. They were equal in the eyes of the law, but they still couldn't use the same bathrooms, drinking fountains or restaurants as whites, let alone other public facilities.

As recently as the 1950s black Americans could be and were executed without benefit of a trial in a public lynching. Then there's what happened in places like Greenwood, Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, when black neighborhoods became prosperous.

The 1960s saw some progress, but it was far more limited than we prefer to believe. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation laws to be unconstitutional, the South saw a wave of public pools closed and private swimming clubs being opened, and white parents withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them in private schools that were based on church membership or required tuition that lower-income black families couldn't afford.

Pictures of lynchings embarrassed the Southern states, so greater efforts were made to give blacks a trial. The death penalty to this day remains much higher for blacks than it is for whites, as are the number of false convictions. So lynching is still a thing. We've just given it a civilized gloss.

Blacks also are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate to whites for the same offenses, and with much heavier penalties. Poll taxes were declared illegal, but now that the federal oversight afforded by the Voting Rights Act has been removed, Southern states have passing voter ID laws to fight nonexistent voter fraud in areas with higher concentrations of minorities.

And, lest we forget, one of the effects of our country's reliance on fines to punish misdemeanors is that we have created a revenue stream for municipalities and an incentive for municipal government to impose late fees on those who don't pay their fines promptly. I'm sure you remember the Justice Department's findings in Ferguson, Mo. Justice officials said the city had been treating the black community like an ATM.

On it goes. We've made progress in our nation in terms of racial equality and justice, but it's come against a strong current of white resistance.

I really see one way forward, to make the past be as past as we want it to be, and that's to acknowledge it properly. When I was growing up we learned in school about some figures from African American history, like Harriet Tubman, Grandma Moses and George Washington Carver, and of course Martin Luther King Jr. That's pretty much it. Slavery got one paragraph in my fifth-grade history textbook and it was pretty much "Yeah, the Revolution didn't free the slaves, but we took care of that eventually, so it's all good."

Even then my education was limited. We memorized a few key phrases from "I Have a Dream," but never even looked at "Where do we go from here?" or "Letters from a Biringham Jail," much less learned about Malcolm X. We learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but never about the head injury her abusive owner gave her, or that liberty when it came after the Civil War did not allow her to ride in "white cars" on trains. I didn't know anything about Frederick Douglass until I was in my 30s beyond "He's the guy with the hair."

None of the Framers was black, but there were black people in the halls of power back then. They had names like Jupiter, Sally Hemings and Oney Judge. They too are America. So are the contrabands and the 54th Mass. Colored Infantry who fought in the Civil War, or Varnum's Continentals in the Revolution. That we don't tell their stories in our schools and worse, that we actively try to suppress their stories, is to our shame as a nation.

If we learn their stories, and the rest of black history, like we've been learning white history, and elevate these heroes like we've elevated others; if we acknowledge the horror of what our nation did to thousands of women like Harriet Jacobs as a matter of routine, then maybe -- maybe -- we one day can say these things are past.

It's going to be a long haul.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


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