The Source’s Black History Month series was unusual. It focused on white leaders who have produced generations of misery and oppression for black people in the United States. Why write such a series? The trigger point was the launch of this year’s Black History Month by the new administration in Washington. The president cited Frederick Douglas as if he were a social worker currently laboring in the field. One of the president’s fans then said he was going to Chicago to talk to some “thugs.” And the vice president began a celebration of white people.
Not only was this insulting, it was also part of a narrative that has sought to rewrite our often-tortured racial history. In this new, comfort-food-for-white-people narrative, slavery and segregation were “problems,” but they were also things that just happened. Bad – but not that bad. And then, as the story goes, with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s, the slate was wiped clean.
That, in the conservative white narrative, is when the real problems began – because not only was the slate wiped clean, but black people began to get all kinds of special privileges, all paid for by hard working white people. And according to this narrative, over time, white Americans felt they were the real victims of racism in our country. And, when you are a victim, all of your own prejudices are justified.
Another part of this narrative is American exceptionalism, the story of the “shining city on a hill” and of an always “generous people.” This is a dangerous way of thinking, especially when it blocks you from honestly seeing what is wrong and makes you think that your society and culture are automatically morally superior to others.
Here is an example that had real shock value. The Africa Channel recently aired a fascinating documentary about West Indian soldiers who fought for Britain in World War II. Over and over again, these soldiers told stories of how good their relations were with white British soldiers, and how it all went downhill with the arrival of the bigoted white American soldiers.
The Source series sought to challenge that “things weren’t so bad” narrative on several levels. First, American slavery and segregation were far more brutal and morally indefensible than the narrative would have us think. Second, generation after generation was oppressed, and it is incomprehensible for someone to believe that legal changes instantly wiped out this dreadful legacy.
Third, and the focus of the series, these things didn’t just happen. There were bad leaders and those leaders had followers, lots of them. In decade after decade, and era after era, there were men, and a rare woman, who saw an opportunity to achieve power through racial oppression and stirring racial animus. They often succeeded. There are lots of things that connect us as people. In each case, these leaders sought to destroy those connections. The series was their stories.
History does matter. What happened matters. And while people remember the past in different ways, that doesn’t mean that everyone is entitled to their own set of facts. They may believe lies because they want to believe them, but that does not make them truths or alternative facts.
History is often messy. An extraordinary demonstration of these realities is contained in the film Lone Star. In one scene, set in a mixed Anglo-Latino border town, Pilar, a Latina schoolteacher, is attempting to explain to angry Anglo parents that she is trying to teach her students a complete and balanced history of their region. When she says that, an enraged Anglo mother, shouts, “Now, that’s what’s gotta stop!” And that is kind of where we are, a time in which any questioning of white innocence is met by the charge of “reverse racism.” And in the minds of large numbers of white people, “Now, that’s what gotta stop!”
The idea of the Source series was to look at slices of black history through a specific lens: the lens of white leaders and the consequences of their actions. Why do that? There were several possible reasons. One was to try to convince a group of people to take a look at history – including their own history – and see it differently. A tough sell in today’s market.
A second was to start an honest and productive conversation about the past and its consequences. That may no longer be possible in our country. But it is worth mentioning that one place where it did take place has – despite enormous challenges – advanced further than most people thought possible. That place is South Africa. As painful and imperfect as the process is, truth and reconciliation are important and worthy goals.
A third reason for a series like this one is to mobilize “your side” with some new ammunition. That was definitely not a purpose of the series; but it is interesting that the angriest voices in response were focused on defending the current crop of white bigots. These are people like Limbaugh and Hannity, the supposed “truth tellers” of 21st century white nationalism. One regularly posed question was, what about the bad black people? What about Al Sharpton? It became, if you can’t find a good white guy, at least find some bad black guys. But, again, that wasn’t the point.
Many years ago, as an innocent young man during the civil rights years, I was driving down a road in rural Alabama. I stopped to help a man whose car had broken down. He was old, very dark, and with extraordinary angular features that I remember to this day. On the drive to the gas station, he kept calling me “sir.” When we got there, he asked, “Could you talk to the (white) man for me”? I said, “It’s not my car, why don’t you talk to him”? Well, that was the end of the “sir” business What he said next has stayed with me all these years. He said, “Son, now listen, there are some good white people and some good black people. (pause) But most of them are no good and they’re going to burn in hell —- together. Now would you go talk to the man”? I did.
I’m not sure about the hell part but I got his point. When you look at our history as a species, it’s hard to feel optimistic about our ability to live together. In the least difficult of circumstances, it is hard work. The best approach is probably to reject optimism, pessimism and victimization and to place our faith in a sense of hope that doing the right thing will result in good things happening.
Part of hope is to believe in the capacity for change. If there was a “hero” in this series, it was an unexpected one: George Wallace, the man who asked forgiveness for all that he had done wrong; and who never presumed to say, “I know how you feel” to black people, but simply that he had begun to understand the pain that he had caused.
Wallace may be the great cause for hope. And for someday reaching the point that we can say, “we’re getting there” when we read the masthead slogan of Frederick Douglas’s North Star: “Right is no sex; truth is no color. God is the father of us all – and all are brethren.”