What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

What Good Is History for African Americans?

MELVIN ROGERS

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photograph: John Sonderman

In the spring of 2012, we sat in the lobby of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. My father, sister, and I had just left an appointment with his oncologist. My father was tired. He sat slightly hunched over in the chair with his arms crossed. His breathing was labored, and his head was slightly raised, looking ahead. We were waiting for my sister to return from handling some paperwork.

“Well, I think this is it,” he said.

“Oh don’t say that,” I responded.

He shrugged, as he often did, when there was little point in debating the reality of things.

Basic bodily movements consumed so much of his energy. But he managed to turn his head toward me: “Make sure your mother gets my money.”

“I will.”

“You did alright for yourself. You did what you were supposed to do. And you didn’t let the man stop you. I guess it’s all how you looked at it.”

All of this was my father’s way of telling me two things. First, it was my responsibility to take care of his affairs once he was gone. Second, he was proud of me. But his claim that I didn’t let “the man”—white folks—stop me was significant.

What America ‘really’ is, what it amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about it may miss the point.

My father was born in Union, South Carolina, in 1932. He was of a very different generation—a time when racism and exclusion were the hallmarks of daily life for black folks, especially in the South. He never fully let go of that past. It didn’t haunt him minutely, but to a significant extent it shaped his views about what was possible. For example, when I was a junior in high school, he began to wonder what trade I would take up. I told him I wanted to go to college and he responded with familiar language: “The man ain’t gonna let you in his school. You need a trade so you can open up a storefront. Am I wrong?”

I pushed back quickly: “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t know if you’re quite right.” We disagreed, and, as he had done on the occasion of many other disagreements, he shrugged.

My father was not trying to destroy my dreams; he was trying to put them on solid footing, properly connected to the reality he thought we lived. I understood this even when I thought he was wrong. I admired it in him, and I loved him for it. To have him, confronted with the certainty of his end, tell me that I did “alright” for myself was, to say the least, an important moment for the both of us. But for him to suggest that the possibility of my success was partly tied to how I looked at things was even more significant. He was acknowledging an important difference between us—a difference between his past and my present.

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Since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, we find ourselves confronted daily with the enormity of our racial reality. The killing of black men and women by police officers, the arms of the state, is not the only thing. Black Americans continue to struggle disproportionately in employment and education. The depth of these problems led journalist Ta-Neshi Coates to describe the situation as the logical and natural consequence of what American society is about. In The Atlantic in 2013, he observed:

When you have a society that takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when the society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging. It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.

In his recent book, Democracy in Black, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., reinforces this claim when he remarks that valuing white people more than others in this country is “in our national DNA.” Glaude’s book is a sober reflection on our racial reality. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the deep-seated nature of racial disregard that distorts the outlook of both whites and blacks. On the other, he tries to distill from anti-racist activism the energy to reimage the values that orient American life. Unlike Coates, Glaude aims for a radical transformation of American society. But it is not clear what one is to do if one begins with the notion that the nation’s DNA makes it unresponsive to the pain of non-whites, especially blacks.

Little can be denied in Coates’s and Glaude’s analyses; it is fashionable these days, and understandably so, to wear one’s despair on one’s sleeve. After all, since the founding of this country we have seen white supremacy mutate and evolve to frustrate progress toward racial equality. Claims of white supremacy’s death—of the post-racialism supposedly evidenced by Barack Obama’s presidency—have proven premature. In the failures of Reconstruction, the eruption of lynching in the South from the 1880s through the 1960s, the rise and fall of Jim Crow, and the reconstitution of Jim Crow in the carceral state, American society has found new and inventive ways of reminding black Americans of their unequal worth.

There is no need to be naïve. The success of some black Americans in no way indicates what is possible for all black Americans. But the persistence of racial inequality demands a response. And as my father understood near the end of his life, how we respond depends on how we see our racial reality. In other words, how we frame the problem is a critical choice.

We—and here I mean black Americans engaged in struggle as well as white Americans who stand in alliance—must confront some crucial questions. Can American democracy only work if some are privileged while others are oppressed, or are we justified in our hopes for a truly inclusive and fair society? Is American democracy constitutionally at odds with our goals, as Coates seems to suggest? Or might it be conducive to building a society in which we all can live equally and at peace with one another?

How we answer these questions depends not only on which histories we consult, but also the weight we accord to the ones we use. In our historical calculus, we might emphasize the reconstitution of white supremacy, but we could just as easily emphasize the ways in which it has been foiled through multiple waves of racial inclusion. Those who embrace the former as our “true” racial reality find themselves trying to prove to those of us who have benefited from racial struggle why our success is illusory or, at best, temporary. But those who locate America’s identity in its resistance to white supremacy have another problem. They are often unable to see the evidence of systemic racism, or they readily describe it as anomalous, foreign to the structure of our institutions. If the first posture seems unsatisfying because it denies human agency and gives the past too much power over the future, the second risks turning a blind eye to the ways white supremacy is often bolstered by institutional support and state violence. Both sides fail to distinguish between the somewhat different tasks of studying the past and narrativizing the past in a way that is useful for moving society in an auspicious direction.

What America “really” is, what its history amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about this may miss the point: we ask such questions of the past less to understand who we have been than to aid us in making decisions about who we should become. This is, we might say, the aspirational quality of the American imagination. The best of the tradition of anti-racist struggles in the United States, including our current Black Lives Matter movement, is nurtured by this idea.

We should stop trying to pinpoint the “true” or “real” identity of the nation as it relates to the status of people of color. Rather, the only question worth asking, if an inclusive democratic society is our goal, is how we should interpret the history of our racial past in order to sustain our hopes. Responding to this question will capture what democracy has always been about: people trying to determine for themselves the kind of society they want to inhabit. This is a utopian—dare I say revolutionary—impulse because it sees democracy as an exercise of our moral imagination, struggling to be realized in practice. We need not look despairingly upon the past because it overdetermines our present; neither do we need to see the past as anchoring a long arc of justice or an inevitable march toward progress. We can instead say simply that there is work to be done and it is ours to do. This is our trade.

Source: What Good Is History for African Americans? | Boston Review

Why History Matters: the Legacy of Slavery – CounterPunch.org

Why History Matters: the Legacy of Slavery

 

Slave auction block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, Virginia, Historic American Buildings Survey – Public Domain

Many Americans watched as Joe Biden marked his Inauguration Day celebration with a brief presentation before the statue of Abraham Lincoln, invoking the Civil War as an historical moment when the nation triumphed over deep division.

When recalling Lincoln, many New Yorkers may remember the famous speech he gave at Cooper Institute (aka Cooper Union) in February 1860 calling to limit the extension – but not the end – of slavery.  It was a critical campaign speech that helped him secure the Republican Party nomination for President.  In November, he was elected, and, in December, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.

Unfortunately, few American – and likely very few New Yorkers – will recall that Lincoln’s speech was strongly attacked by city business leaders and the Democratic Party, many assailing him with the racist slogan, “Black Republican.” More important, Lincoln’s election sparked a strong movement in the city, led by Mayor Fernando Wood, to join the South and secede from the Union.

This is one of the many important historical stories retold in an informative new book by Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (Bold Type Books). Slavery was formally abolished in New York State in 1827, but the slave trade lived on in the city until the Civil War. Wells argues that the slave trade persisted in New York City in the decades before the Civil War because it was the capital of the Southern slave economy.

The city’s business community of major banks, insurance companies and shipping industry financed and facilitated the cotton trade. Many of the leaders of this community played a decisive role in city social life and politics, including control over the powerful Democratic Party. Together, they backed the authority of the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” – and later Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850) — guaranteeing slavery. Equally critical, city police, leading lawyers and judges (state and federal), with the support of the growing Irish immigrant community, colluded with organized slave “kidnappers.”

The slave trade functioned in two complementary ways. First, northern free Blacks — including young children — as well as self-emancipated former slaves who fled to New York from the slave states lived in fear of being kidnapped by organize slave catchers (often city police officers) and transported south into slavery. Second, “slaver” ships regularly stopped in New York harbor with numerous African slaves hidden on board as cargo to be sold as part of a lucrative, if illegal, business.

In pre-Civil War New York, the police were underpaid and made money through accepting bribes as well as by securing lucrative rewards from seizing and sending alleged “fugitive” Black people to the South or a fee for the sale of a captured free Black person into slavery. Because the courts were run by the Democrats, graft and corruption were accepted judicial procedures. Any Black person could be seized — walking on the street, working on the docks, at home in the middle of the night and even kids on their way to school – and accused of being an allegedly run-away slave. Most judges were notorious racists who thought little of Black people and were eager to go along with police charges.

The city’s powerful pro-slavery movement based its support for Southern slavery and slave kidnapping on the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” (i.e., Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3). It stipulated that “no person held to service or labor” would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state, thus requiring northern free cities like New York to return the self-emancipated to their southern enslavers.

In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that added more enforcement teeth to the original Clause, explicitly stating that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. Henry Clay promoted what was known as the “Compromise of 1850” that strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act to forestall growing talk of Southern secession. The revised act compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaways and denied escaped people the right to a jury trial, among other actions.  The new act was met by fierce resistance in many anti-slavery states, including upstate New York. The new act was adopted as the Underground Railroad reached its peak as many self-emancipated former slaves fled to Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction.

The author grounds much of his narrative around the life of David Ruggles, a courageous Black abolitionists and journalist.  He was born in Connecticut in 1810 when the spirit of the Revolution still glowed. At age 16, he moved to New York and became an abolitionist activist. He was a prolific contributor to newspapers, including his own paper Mirror of Liberty, published numerous pamphlets and contributed to abolitionist papers like The Liberator. He named “The New York Kidnapping Club” and published a list those he believed participated in kidnappings. Going further, he boarded ships in the harbor in search of Black captives or for signs of participants in the illegal slave trade.  He also hosted the wedding of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray at his New York home after they fled Maryland.

Ruggles helped forge the Underground Railroad, thus assisting self-liberated fugitives to safety in the north or to freedom in Canada. He was joined by a small but activist antislavery community that included Horace Dresser, Arthur Tappan, Charles B. Ray and Elizabeth Jennings. He ran a bookstore and was physically attacked, his store burned; he was hounded by the police and even briefly jailed. Sadly, by his 30s, he was nearly blind and moved to Massachusetts.

In 1837, Ruggles helped found the New York Committee of Vigilance, a biracial organization opposed to the kidnapping of innocent Black residents as well as self-liberated former slaves. The abolitionists were a small but activities community that regularly protested when a Black person was kidnapped and petitioned for jury trials in the cases of those arrested as fugitives. Not unlike today’s supporters of Black Lives Matter, Black and white activists in pre-Civil War New York claimed that law enforcement was mostly little more than legalized racism.

The Kidnapping Club reminds readers that New York was a pro-slavery city even as the nation was engulfed in the Civil War. Wells recounts how the city’s leadership joined with the growing movement in the South to promote secession. While the South seceded and New York (white) citizen voted against Lincoln’s election, the city remained part of the Union.

However, built-up anti-abolitionist sentiments exploded in the 1865 Draft Riot that saw Union soldier from the recent Battle of Gettysburg march on the city to suppress the uprising in which the Negro Orphan Asylum burned, numerous churches destroyed and about 100 people died, many of them Blacks.

Without acknowledging the racial conditions of New York during pre-Civil War era, especially the horrors inflicted by the “kidnapping club” and the role of the police and judiciary, one cannot fully understand – nor can society truly address – the complaints raised by the Black Lives Matter movement today. Racial oppression and suffering leave a deep and enduring scar that only true social change can remedy.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

Source: Why History Matters: the Legacy of Slavery – CounterPunch.org

Suffragettes were some of our first women’s historians. But they erased the vital work of black women. – The Lily

“Consistent with the deep-seated prejudices held by most white suffragists, Catt included no plaques to commemorate the thousands of African American women who actively participated in the struggle. Regional chauvinism was an issue as well: All the domestic suffragists were from the East Coast, with New York State vastly overrepresented. There was no one from California or the West, nor anyone from the South, unless you counted the Grimké sisters who left their native South Carolina to settle in Philadelphia and later New Jersey.

For too long, the history of how women won the right to vote has closely paralleled Catt’s suffrage forest: top-heavy and dominated by a few iconic leaders, all white and native-born. Moving away from that outdated approach reveals a broader, more diverse suffrage history waiting to be told, one that shifts the frame of reference away from the national leadership to highlight the women — and occasionally men — who made women’s suffrage happen through actions large and small, courageous and quirky, in states and communities across the nation. Suffrage activists campaigned in church parlors and the halls of Congress, but also in graveyards on the outskirts of college campuses, on the steps of the Treasury building and even on top of Mount Rainier.”

Source: Suffragettes were some of our first women’s historians. But they erased the vital work of black women. – The Lily