In 1935 Bruce M. Wright was accepted to Princeton and awarded a merit scholarship. When he arrived on campus the administration realized Wright was black, and they refused to enroll him.
This isn’t all that interesting or unusual, because it was so normal. We have all heard these sorts of stories before. I’m telling tis one now because I think it is worth looking at what the white men of Princeton said about it at the time. You know, so that maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat it and all that.
In explaining the University’s change of mind, Radcliffe Heermance, the dean of admissions, shared with no intent at irony that, “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed. This is clearly set forth in the original charter of the college and the tradition has been maintained throughout the life of the University”
Heerman went on to explain that he in fact likes black people, “I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race, because I have had very pleasant relations with your race…”.
He went on to explain that he could not come to school there as he would be the only black person and hence would feel lonely. He also shared that there are quite a number of southern students at Princeton and they would not like sharing their school with a black person. They would make Wright to feel unwelcome.
So Wright was sent home against his will.
In other words, Heermance, with no intent of irony, told a black scholarship recipient that he could not attend Princeton, because white students didn’t want him there, but that this didn’t constitute racism. Because Princeton’s charter stated that they don’t discriminate. It was obvious is both Princeton’s actions and explanation how they ranked and valued humans. The racism of white students was acceptable, worth accommodating, but the presence of a black student was not.
America as a body, has decades and decades of practice doing racist things and explaining that it isn’t racism. Such is evident in the original Constitution, in the way our economy functions, and in so many official documents, judgements, and practices in so many places, locales, and institutions, that trying to separate out racism from these things is like trying to extract the salt from a baked loaf of bread.
I am not sure if this is possible with bread, but I have hope for America. But if it is to happen we cannot over simplify the task at hand or take explanations at face value. We have to step back and evaluate the consequences of our actions and the values they make evident.
A friend told me New Orleans was exactly my kind of place. A different friend described New Orleans as completely debauched. I think one was referring to the city’s reputation for music history and food and the other was talking about drunken toplessness. He compared it to Vegas where too many people are trying too hard to do something regrettable. He did however give New Orleans credit in that while Vegas is a plaster imitation of a million other somewhere elses, New Orleans is in fact a real place all its own.
I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orlean’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got. While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.
The whole place looks like it used to be green, was then grown over in black mold, and finally scrubbed hard with bleach. The result is a faded green and white streaked with grey black echoing the Spanish moss that hangs from trees outside of town. There aren’t as many trees in town, and they are strung with beads not moss.
When I got there it was surprisingly quiet. There were people around, places were open, but I got the feeling the whole city was resting up, waiting for something to happen later. There were bright colored bits of cloth left torn and strewn over everything. Formely glossy green gold and purple beads hung from tree branches and balcony railings and rainbow flags mixed in regularly with the flour de li. It was like the whole city was experiencing a post drag show hangover. Like something wild and just a touch trashy had already happened, it was sure to happen again, but everyone needed a nap first.
Crossing a grassy median by the trolley tracks I stepped over a pile of discarded casino chips. It was a small pile of Harra’s disks in purple yellow and green. I am not now nor have I ever been a gambler, so as I kept walking past that stash I simultaneously wondered if I had just passed a pile of redeemable money, how one might redeem a pile of found chips, and how badly I would get mocked if I went to Harra’s and tried. Wondering if it was worth a try I noticed an old woman who looked like money walking a miniature dog past a homeless man, and just past the homeless man was a hipster.
Actually they were two, not one- a couple. He with his horn rimmed glasses and beanie, her with a lemon yellow bob and septum piercing, neither of which alone make a hipster, but I saw them navigating by phone, not taking pictures of pretty houses, which could only mean Yelp. I have made it a best practice to follow tattooed millennials who are navigating on foot via Yelp. It is how I have found some of my best meals. On this occasion they were right and so was I.
They were indeed finding food and it was better than good. My first instinct would be to say that the Turkey and the Wolf is not what would be considered New Orleans cuisine, but it is there, and I’ve never had buffalo sauce deviled eggs topped with chicken skin ‘cracklins’ anywhere else, so I would have to say my first instinct was wrong. My second instinct was to order said eggs as well as the shredded lamb gyro drowned in dill. My second instinct did not disappoint. I may have been the only one Instagramming the houses out on my walk but everyone at lunch posted their meal. That includes me.
There were no hipsters at Cochon, and the fact that Google maps had it listed as existing at all made me worry just a little. But it was the closest restaurant to the hotel that wasn’t a hotel restaurant and it was going completely ignored by the tourists who were in town for Wrestlemania, which I saw as a good sign so I went in. I sat at the chef’s counter right in front of the wood burning oven. The chef’s counter is where you sit so you can see your food being made and hear the chef yell unintelligible things to everyone in the kitchen and then they all shout back in unison “yes chef”. You see people scurrying about doing menial things like washing plates, hauling flour and stoking an oven till chef rings a little bell and slides a plate of edible art onto a counter where a less sweaty person picks up the plate for delivery. The waiter described dish Cochon as pulled pork that is formed into a patty, lightly breaded then pan seared. It was good but it was the eggplant soufflé that made me want to shout “yes chef”. I did not expect to like it but the waiter suggested it. and he was right.
Food is everywhere in New Orleans. It is in every little corner shop, in the balconies. In the river, the ocean- everywhere. I had stuffed flounder at Adolfo’s, oysters at Felix’s, boudin and meat pies at Bourree, lime seared chicken at Cane & Table, shrimp etouffee at Galatoire’s, beignet at Café Du Monde, and crawfish at some side of the road place where the guy at the register had to speak through one of those little devices throat cancer survivors use to sound like a robot. They were all worth it in all the ways that matter. No, they are all worth it in all the ways that exist. It is a city where- when it comes to food- no matter how you roll the dice you win. It is telling that in all the days I was there in all the miles I walked or drove, I only saw one McDonalds and never saw a Target. I did see a Bubba Gump, which made me remember that Office episode where Michael’s favorite NY pizza spot is Sbarro’s. Because I’m much more Dwight than Michael I kept walking.
Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks off Jackson Square. In full disclosure those streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying, depending on the person- or people I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers. I enjoyed it. It is a place that feels like a place. The quiet from earlier in the day was gone replaced by jazz.
I’m calling it jazz despite my not really knowing a way to define that genre- but there were plenty of trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and upturned hats or buckets sitting on the curb waiting for tips. Whatever an actual authority might call it, it was mostly upbeat and made walking down a street of strangers feel a bit like a party. No. It felt like multiple parties all squished together. One party was being led by a slightly tubby 20 year old doing covers of 70’s funk songs accompanied by a weathered Al Green doppelganger. Next door, and this part was a surprise to me, was country music. Stepping into an almost empty bar I was initially disappointed to hear a twangy voice slowly whining over an acoustic guitar. I was a little intrigued when I looked on stage to see that noise coming from a black man. As I stared in wonder, a little bit in horror, I realized I knew the song. It was “pictures of You by the Cure. I was witness to a black man singing a country version of a Cure song. I was amazed, a little impressed, but definitely didn’t want to stay to hear that. One more door down was a full swing band crammed into a very small corner. The sound was great, thumping bass line and quick fingered clarinet, but 20 year olds in fedoras and zuit suits made the place feel a little to costume party for my tastes. Which was fine because there was another bar with another band right next door. This one had a steel guitar and organ and a 40 year old white man singing about bringing a loaded gun to the door to chase off salesmen. I appreciated what he was doing but his voice sounded explainey more than singy and no where near whaling or soulful. The place that finally made me linger was an ensamble that looked like an “all ages” chess club, or maybe like a tech company kick ball team, but they played like I thought the city should sound without looking too kitschy.
Just about an hour’s drive up the Mississippi there is a row of preserved plantations popular with chartered tours and wedding receptions. Facing right up to the big river and backed by sprawling fields of sugar cane are the sorts of palaces fantasized about in Gone with the Wind or any other antebellum story. There you find the real life relics that inspired those post war un reconstructed ideas. Oak Alley aptly named with a long arched tunnel of Oak limbs flanking a path leading to bright white columns encasing a genteel two story wrap around porch is right off the road. One mile up river is another called Evergreen, and then there is Laura, and St. Joseph. They are all landscaped to photographic perfection with clean and quaint gift shops selling cook books and hoop skirts. Lousiana isn’t unique in this. After all, the real Terra is in Atlanta and Mt. Vernon is above all else, celebratory. I have been on house and ground tours in Virginia, Savannah, Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and they all do things pretty much the same. They dress up like the white people who owned the place and tell wonderful stories of rags to riches mercantilism, explain the furniture, and then they laud the family’s contributions to the community through the 1930’s or 60’s when the last spinster descendent turned the estate over to a preservationist trust so we could all enjoy the rich history that lives in this beautiful place.
Then there is the Whitney.
Historically the Whitney is exactly like all the others. It too started with a colonists dream built into a business then handed down as a family palace. Its history is no different than Monticello, the Hermitage, or all its neighbors along the big river but it is fundamentally, foundationally, spiritually, different from all of them today.
I have been to Monticello and been told on the house tour that Mr. Jefferson had trouble getting a good cook to stay in the house. I was told a story of how Jefferson made a great investment in his chef’s French training only to have said chef skip town once back in America. There was no mention that this was because the chef was a slave and slaves didn’t like being slaves. Nor was there mention of this slave being related to the master’s family by blood and I was informed that this was scandalous rumor that couldn’t be proven- despite the fact that a Pulitzer prize winner had recently done just that.
I was told another tale at the home of Andrew Jackson where great honor is given to a grey haired old black man who when given his freedom, decided to stay on the plantation. The tour gave no room for questioning why.
But I have also been to Buchenwald in Germany.
Buchenwald was a concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as part of the final solution. After its liberation by Allied armies the local Germans were made to tour the facility. It was thought important that those who may not have been directly responsible, though perhaps complicit, be brought face to face with the realities of genocide and death. Today the camp is open as a museum and memorial to those who suffered and or died there.
That is the Whitney Plantation.
There was no talk there of confederate bravery or Nazi scientific precision, just honesty and reverence for the black people who suffered and or died-for the sole purpose of making some white people rich. It was not really about blame- though it was honest and fair in a way that those other houses have never been, nor was the prevailing feeling one of hate or revenge.
I have been to DC and stood at the Vietnam memorial, a large wall listing the names of the dead, and it feels sacred. At the Whitney there is a similar memorial listing names of black people who suffered-and or died-as slaves just in Louisiana. It lists double the number of names as the wall in DC (57,939 vs 109,200) and felt to me at least as powerful.
And then there are those statues.
In the little chapel, and out in the wooden shacks, are black children cast in bronze. Their visible presence is an unavoidable reminder of who lived in these homes and why. They are haunting. But they aren’t just blank recreations of what might have been, these children have names. And they have stories. In the 1930’s the federal government sent out employees with recording equipment to capture the stories of those old people who were alive back in slave times. The statues are those people, portrayed at the age they would have been when emancipated. The result is not just a bunch of kid statues, but real people whose stories you can know and stand and hear while looking at them standing or sitting in the location where they were born- meant to suffer and or die to make some white family rich. There is no such thing at other houses.
But what struck me the most, or hit me the hardest, was a bell.
Bells were normal on plantations and they were rung for several reasons. They rang to call everyone in from the field, or for lights out, or as a call to gather to witness someone being punished. The Whitney has such bells. The Whitney also has something else other plantations don’t really have- black visitors. I have stood in several crowds of German, Japanese, or French people at dozens of historic plantations- but what I had never done before was be in such a place standing next to black people. Outside of minors who were bussed to such places on field trips or the awkward bridesmaid whose white sorority sister opted for a genteel plantation wedding, I had not known black people to visit the location of their ancestor’s torture.
But at the Whitney I witnessed a tour guide tell of the old ringing of plantation bells with the explanation that now they choose to ring them in honor of the memory of black people who once lived there, and then I watched a young black mother send her little black son up to pull the rope. When the bell rang I lost my mind. My head stopped thinking and I started feeling. My eyes welled up, my breathing caught short and I had to walk away. I didn’t just see and know things right then, I felt them.
There is meaning in that.
And then I left that place and went a mile down the road to another such house where the guide proudly showed me the plantation owner’s signature on multiple loyalty pledges where he had duplicitously promised not to fight against the United States in the civil war any more. The guide chuckled when he also showed me the list of battles this plantation owner fought in after breaking those promises. There was no mention of black people other than to brag that after emancipation most of the slaves chose to stay. He had no answer as to who those black people were or why they made that so called “choice”.
And that is New Orleans.
It is an old city with much of its story sinking in mud both real and figurative. I t is a place where bad things happened and happen. It is the kind of place where despite all of those things or maybe because of them, people choose not to focus but drench themselves in bourbon and beads. The music swings loud, the food is full of flavor, and they dance at funerals.
The city is turning 300 years old this year which is “founding fathers” old in American years and all this time the crescent city has been its own kind of place with its own story. More than any other city this one is the story of France, Spain, the Huma and Choctaw- and Africa. And then the United States, Haiti, and the Confederacy. All the while Andrew Jackson waves his hat triumphantly in the square and goes mostly ignored. The crowds that mill around are more interested in Café Dumond’s beignets or the buskers on the corner. They are not really looking into the city’s history, unless maybe on a ghost tour, which is less about what happened then and more about what sort of then still haunts now. Which is appropriate because now is haunted by then so much more than the crowds appear to want to know. Though in all fairness the crowds only appear to want to know bourbon and brightly colored beads.
The party is so loud and constant that you sense it has and will always be going on and consequentially the place is celebrated but only shallowly considered. Maybe that is changing just a little, they did after all take down a statue or two,
Let me say up front that Black Americans have no need of my endorsement or recommendations in anything they might think or feel.
That being said, I am in full support of any Black American who prefers the identifier “African-American”, and here is why.
I often field questions, or rather suggestions, from various white people that “we” should all just be American with no hyphens or ethno-racial identifiers. This suggestion is normally given in the spirit, or with an expressed desire, that we should be a united, racist-free, nation. I appreciate this desire, share the hope of a day without racism, but reject the proposal, and here is why.
When the United States first formed as an independent country, those in power decided formally that to be “American”, or a citizen of the United States, a person had to be white. This is why the waves of immigrants over the years were able to shed their hyphens of Irish, English, German or otherwise and melt into that one word, American. Others had a tougher time.
This is why Arizona wasn’t allowed statehood till 1912. It had been “property” of the United States since 1848, with people living there for centuries previous, but the United States had a policy that there needed to be a critical mass of white people living in any given territory before it could be considered a state. The people living in Arizona were brown and it took a series of intentional settlements including land giveaways encouraging white immigration before white people had enough of a majority to be part of America. This critical mass of whiteness was attained around 1910, the application process took a couple years, and thanks to that ball getting started rolling, by 2010 Arizona had become 73% white.
As late as 1927, almost 60 years after the passing of the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court was still settling cases on who got to be considered white, which again, was a synonym for American. Lum v Rice decided that it was up to the individual states to decide who was and was not white (in this case it was a person from China suing to be white), in order to decide who got the full privileges of American citizenship. All because you had to be white to get those official privileges.
Most of us know the story of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s where Black Americans had to not only win legal battles but also take beatings from police officers in order to be allowed the same rights as other Americans, aka white people. Now if we keep in mind that these Black people’s families had been on this continent and participating in the building of this country every bit as long, and even longer, than many Irish, German, Italian, French, or even Iranian- all of whom assimilated by becoming legally white, we should take a closer look at what we suggest anyone do in order to assimilate.
Because back when Irish were shedding their hyphens, Black Americans were not only forbidden from full assimilation but also systematically prevented from pursuing success. So they forged their own ways to prosper.
While Black Americans were raising white children, cleaning white houses and having their labor exploited without constitutional protection, those same Black people were inventing jazz, laying a foundation for the discipline of sociology, reciting poetry over drum machines, fighting in American wars, penning novels, and helping send astronauts into space. All this while not being allowed the title of American, but rather Negro- or other words connoting their color with an added measure of insult. Consequentially Black people have developed a distinct culture that is very much American but distinct from that of those who were accepted as white/American historically. That deserves respect, honor and appreciation.
In the past the “distinctness” brought along by immigrant groups (which is everyone other than indigenous peoples) was absorbed, or allowed, by letting these “others” be swallowed by whiteness. Some groups wanted to be white but still unique, and America said “yes” giving them St. Patrick’s and Columbus days. In response to things like Columbus Day, other white people founded things like the Daughters of The American Revolution, but all of them were united under the banner of American whiteness.
All of that is, quite literally, history. So when do we move past all that?
In 1967 a group of Black Americans attempted to get past it and exercise the 2nd amendment. They formed a militia and bore arms for their own protection. America responded by taking their guns and passing gun control laws. These Black people claimed the guns were to defend themselves, and that they had a right to do so, and America said they did not have that right.
The next year, sans militia, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot for advocating Black citizenship. So we know that the past wasn’t history 50 years ago.
How about 9 years ago?
The election of a bi-racial Black man to the presidency of the United States was heralded by many as the moment when we as a nation were finally over our racist past. How ironic then, that the most prominent and persistent accusation against our Black president, the accusation by which our current president made his political name, was that he was not born in America. He was accused of literally not being an American. Which was very much in line with the messages America has sent Black people all along. The past is obviously not gone yet. Was the 41 years between MLK and Obama enough to have both erased 192 years of racial division and then drive it all the way back into divisiveness due to some Black people preferring a hyphen?
Or maybe the term African-American isn’t exactly the cause, but rather just a hindrance?
Considering the contributions and struggles of Black people in this country, and knowing that all the other assimilated groups very literally shed their hyphenated status in favor of whiteness, makes the request that African-Americans only claim the title American, smack of condescending insult. I do not say this as an accusation that anyone who has forwarded such a suggestion did so from a dark and cruel place- but not all insults are intended.
Black people should be able to claim full American status without having to do so in a way that has always been a nod to whiteness. If the only way to do this is to bring back hyphens for everyone- great. Do it. But I will not be the one to tell any Black person that they should reject or ignore the African heritage that my country has so intentionally tried to dishonor all this time. For a Black person to be able to claim both their African descent, their Blackness, and their full American status simultaneously, is in my mind the best American dream. It is long past time that we, as Americans, accept that our country is, has been, and should be, a nation of people from many places, who don’t all look the same, who do not all act the same, and who can claim the fullness of who they are- while being fully American.
At the beginning of Black History Month we should recognize that people of African descent have been on the American continent just as long as people from Europe.* There was never a time in the history of European colonization of America that did not include black people. Nor was there really a place or time in the Americas not touched by slavery.
The Spanish had been in the American slavery business for more than 100 years before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth so it shouldn’t be surprising that by the 1620’s the boats full of New England settlers also brought along Black people as slaves.
At the same time the same thing was going on in Jamestown down in Virginia, and in Philadelphia, then Charleston too.
Hereditary slavery dictated by skin color wasn’t codified at the start and things took different routes in different regions, but on February 1st, the start of the month when a greater focus is placed on the participation of Black people in America, we should know that Black people have been here the entire time. They were never an afterthought, nor were they simply forgotten, but the stories, contributions, and relevance have been intentionally pushed aside, covered up, and discarded.
Lets fix that.
*There are theories and some evidence that Africans visited and even settled on the American continent before Columbus.
I have recently seen a spattering of high school and college kids getting caught on cameras saying and doing racist stuff. The public reaction is most often shock and horror, which is appropriate, and then there is this accusation that this is surely an indicator of nefariousness among the adults who raised these kids. I hear “They must be learning that stuff at home”.
When it comes to ignoring, dismissing, or disparaging the experiences or ideas of black people in America, that message is taught in the air. No one needs to be at the chalk board. Just like a child learning to walk, if left alone, they will figure it out.
The truth is that very intentional steps need to be taken in the home for a child to NOT learn the messages of assumed black inferiority, or more to the point, the inherent message of white superiority.
The idea that white is the default setting of all things America, be it citizenship, relatability, models of behavior, or representatives of corporate or skilled positions is built into how we go about our daily lives. Yes there may be, and increasingly are, representations of “diversity” throughout our environment, but they are very much just that- diversity. They aren’t the norm or the default but rather representations of the deviance from that norm. There is whiteness and then there is all that other stuff we like to sprinkle into the white pool and we call it diversity. Many of us may love diversity, but really we see it as extra. When all things are left to themselves, they float and rest in whiteness. So much so that it needn’t be named or acknowledged.
Because of this anything outside of white is a thing and people react to “things” in all sorts of ways. Some of us don’t really think we have “things”, as in cross-fit is my “thing” or saving the whales is my “thing”, and those of us who think we don’t have one tend to dismiss the “things” of others. I may think extreme attention to physical fitness is a distraction from things that matter, like literature, and if I am that sort of person, I might even tell jokes about cross-fit (the other day I tried to kill a roach by spraying it with Axe body spray, now the roach is named Blake and it won’t shut up about cross-fit). That would be a bias and we all have them, and we should keep them in check. Keeping our bias in check is not being overly sensitive, it is being appropriately sensitive.
When it comes to race, this default setting of white in America means that anyone or any time blackness, or race at all, is brought up, it immediately registers as a “thing” and we tend to react accordingly. Some are into it, some dismiss it, but is not the norm. Those that mock things they aren’t into generally, will likely mock those who complain about the killing of unarmed black people because race politics aren’t their “thing”. Those who generally ignore things that don’t interest them, will likely just ignore those who claim gerrymandering intentionally suppresses the black vote, because making politics a race issue isn’t their “thing”. And then there are those who, like puppies, get excited about every”thing” and jump out to join a march or rally or just a conversation about whether or not the Oscars have been whitewashed with the same uninformed fascination I might give to excavating shipwrecks along the Outer Banks. That isn’t really my thing but it sounds cool.
Realizing this will help us understand why kids do stupid things regarding race. Understanding this is the first step in changing. And we do in fact need to change. Because America does not need to be white. America has never been a geography or system where only white people live and work. Those who aren’t white deserve full recognition and that recognition should go so far that it is assumed and need not be called out- but we are a long way away from that.
That is the goal and we cannot get there by skipping the in-between parts. That would be like running the first and last mile of a marathon but not all those pesky miles in between. Though I would argue that this is what American has historically done. Every time we start running the marathon of race (see what I did there?) we get a little bit tired and skip all the way to the finish line and just ignore race as if it is suddenly irrelevant. And when we do this without truly changing the default setting of whiteness, what we really do when we ignore “race” is ignore the people and ideas and issues that aren’t white. When we ignore race, deny its relevance, or simply do nothing, we let the environmental default do the teaching for us. We are left to the messages sent by television, peers, music, peers, schools, churches, or even just soccer teams.
And when the default is whiteness, and the default goes unchallenged and unchanged, that is what racism is.
So we have to fight that. We begin by teaching that all people have value and none of that value is based on pigmentation. That is mile 1 of 24. Mile 2, and I think most, but definitely not enough of us have been at least this far, is that skin color, that thing we call race, isn’t really a biological thing. Skin does not make anyone fast or slow, smart or dumb, lascivious or prude. Melanin, hair texture, face structure, none of those things are related. Got it. But then comes miles 3 through 23. I think mile 3 is listening to black people. I don’t mean watching black people in order to be entertained, because America has always done that, but I mean when black people, or really all non-white people but I think we have plenty to chew on if we actually invested any real time and effort listening to African-Americans or Native-Americans. Listening not talking. Again, and I really do need to repeat this, because listening to is not the same as listening about. Plenty of messages out there are about black people, I am saying the work of mile 3 is listening directly. Then next maybe asking- but not sharing. You see most of us, because it is such a human thing, after asking one little bit and hearing a little about someone else, we then share a boat load about ourselves. I know I’m a criminal offender in this regard. But white people shouldn’t do that here. We have more than 300 years of sharing all and everything about white America, we can afford to shut up for a little bit.
There is a lot more to do after that but we have never gotten even this far. There is still plenty of asking, and voting, and investing, and teaching, and repairing, and then probably more investing, before we get to mile 24 and we can start “ignoring”. I’m not sure how long that will take but I do know that marathons aren’t run naturally. What I mean is no one just sat there and waited their time and found themselves having completed a marathon. They had to train and run. We will never get to race not mattering in America by just waiting for it to happen. We cannot just wait for all the older runners to age and pass away. All this does is clear the course but it doesn’t run anywhere. And we all get fat waiting.
If America is a set of ideals, and laws, bound by a physical geography, there need not be any real place for skin color in that definition. If we stick with what America is or should be striving to be, or claiming to be, it also need not be defined by a language. Or a religion. Because the ideals of liberty and justice open to all, should in fact mean all Americans. But historically it has meant white Americans. Meant it so much that we at some point just stopped saying it out loud. But we never changed the default
So when high school kids get caught on video making light of lynching or saying racist things, we shouldn’t act so surprised. We shouldn’t assume that something extra nefarious is going on in that home. It could just as easily be that nothing about race is going on in that home. And that is exactly what doing nothing will get us.
Bob Marley’s song Buffalo Soldier was played at every youth dance I ever attended. I’m not exactly sure why that song, out of Bob’s hundreds, was such a mainstay on the dance circuit, right alongside Alphaville’s Forever Young, but without fail you would hear that brass prelude, duuuuuuuh- duh dah. Duh-duh, dah-dah, duuh da-da! Then we would all start bouncing and singing along.
They didn’t play that song at the National Buffalo Soldier Museum grand opening in Houston Texas this Veteran’s Day. It was noticeably absent. My brother and I on the other hand, were present. So were a grand assembly of 10th Cavalry reenactors. Formed in 1866, the 10th Cavalry, while not being the United States’s first black regiment, they were the first black regiment formed during peacetime. Now of course “peacetime” is a bit of a misnomer since the U.S. was indeed engaged in a number of armed conflicts with various Native American nations, and also Spain, and then Mexico, and also with a bunch ranchers, miners, and farmers intent on putting the “wild” descriptor solidly into the Wild West.
From 1866 through 1918 the Buffalo Soldiers fought against all of them. They fought well enough that over that time 26 of these soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. All those medal winners are notable for a number of different reasons, but the biggest one, is that despite those hard to earn honors, officials in the United States government, the military, and white Americans in general repeatedly withdrew praise or sanction whenever things got anywhere near complicated. And by complicated I mean whenever white people complained.
This makes sense when considering the relationship between black people and the United States overall. It has always been this sort of “complicated”. Let me offer a few examples that illustrate what I mean by complicated, and remember, these guys earned 26 Medals of Honor.
After the civil war, where black units like the Massachusetts 54th earned high praise, the ever striving Armstrong Custer accepted a demotion rather than accept command of the Buffalo Soldier’s 9th Cavalry. With a lower rank he took command of the 7th and headed for Little Bighorn.
John J. Pershing, before he became the commander of all American forces on the western front of World War 1, was the commander of the 10th. He sang the unit’s praises and in return was mocked by the rest of the army who gave him the derogatory nickname “N—-r Jack”. When Woodrow Wilson, the president who re-segregated the Whitehouse staff and held screenings of the film Birth of a Nation, placed Pershing in command of the whole army, Pershing abandoned the black units, handing their command over to the French. He refused to allow any other American units to integrate with, or be commanded by, anyone but other Americans.
In 1897 the Buffalo Soldiers were considered the best equestrians in the armed services and it was proposed they take over the riding instruction at West Point. This proposal was ignored or declined for ten years till 1907 when West Point’s cavalry unit was designated as a colored unit. It remained so till Harry Truman desegregated the Army.
It should be remembered that this period in United States history, let’s say 1866 through 1920, encompasses a number of different era’s ie. Reconstruction, Industrialization, the Gilded Age, the Nadir, Westward Expansion etc. I call that entire time “White People Gone Wild”. Those were the days where defeated confederate soldiers burned down black neighborhoods to regain political office. That was back when live ammunition was used to break up steel worker strikes. This was when prospectors got military backing to kick Sioux of their designated homelands, bison nearly went extinct due to recreational slaughter, and Chinese immigrants were encouraged to help build railroads after which they became the target of our countries first immigration law aka the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was an era where America decided, officially on paper, that it was going to not only stretch from sea to shining sea but that it would also continue to be explicitly the home of white people. And the government was more than happy to wield black soldiers in the fight against brown people in order to establish national whiteness.
That is what I mean by complicated.
All history is messy. American history around race is especially so. Things aren’t all that clear cut today either.
But what was clear on Memorial Day in Houston Texas, is that there exists a strong tradition of African-American military service and a well-earned pride in the history of that service. A pride that despite its complications was fought for and claimed, and it is a history that should be preserved.
In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.
The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.
All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.
Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.
While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t. Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.
We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.
In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.
Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.
I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?
The confederate battle flag was not just the banner flown by an army fighting for the right to own black people, it was also the banner that was revived and waved by those who opposed desegregation and civil rights.
In honor of the centennial celebration of the Civil War in 1961, South Carolina decided to raise the confederate battle flag over the state house. No black people were on the commission that made that decision.
Not only were they not on that commission, but South Carolina did not allow any black people to participate in their hosting of the national festivities. JFK tried to force the South Carolinians by moving the festivities to an integrated Navy base in Charleston, but the white people led a walk out and held their own official celebration in a segregated hotel. In that celebration Strom Thurmond gave a speech saying integration was evil and that the US Constitution never promised racial equality.
That is when that flag went up on the South Carolina capitol building. Black people (and some allies) have been asking for that flag to come down ever since. Those in authority continually refused.
On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist murdered 9 black worshipers in a Charleston church. In the subsequent outcry against violent racism, there was some talk of the flag coming down. Those in authority thought they might allow it.
On June 27, 2015 a full 54 years after that flag went up, a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the 30 foot flag pole and tore the flag down in defiance of the police who waited below to arrest her. She refused to wait for some democratic action to recognize her humanity when God had granted it from birth.
She was of course arrested when she came back down.
On July 9th the SC House of Representatives voted to remove the confederate battle flag in some seemingly gracious act of conciliation. It was an act that came not only 23 days too late, but 54 years overdue.
Bree, in her act of theater, gave America a symbol illustrating bravery and self determination in blackness.
Yesterday the white house played host to presidents of historically black colleges and universities. You may have seen the picture. It is the one with our nation’s president at his desk, a smiling Amarosa at his side. The office is packed with black people in dresses and suits, and of course Mrs. Conway kneeling on the couch.
I wasn’t there. I don’t really know what happened and I can only guess at why.
But Dr. Walter Kimbrough, the President of Dillard University was in that room and he wrote about it. Oddly enough just last week three freshman were in my office asking me questions about student support and I printed out two different peer reviewed articles written by Dr. Kimbrough to help them.
Here is what he said about yesterday, “…the goal was for officials from a number of Federal agencies (about 5 were there including OMB) and Secretary DeVos to hear about HBCUs. That all blew up when the decision was made to take the presidents to the Oval Office to see the President… there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today- we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today.”
Today is the last day of Black History Month. The image I saw online had the potential to communicate some hope for these institutions. Sadly, as is the precedent, it fell far short.
“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.
HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
This is the kind of statement you make if you aren’t listening. But again, I wasn’t there so maybe she did listen, or maybe she didn’t get a chance to hear them, or maybe it is worse. Maybe she listened and then still chose to release the above.
It should be clear that Black colleges did not start because of too few choices, they were founded because of exclusion. There was a system in place that was working for white people, and those people fought hard to keep this benefit exclusive.
Once these schools were founded they did not represent an additional choice, or even an alternative, they represented the only option.
Had the Secretary chosen to listen to Dr. Kimbrough, the president of one of these lauded schools, here is what he would have said (which we know he would have said because he published it today),
“Fifty years ago a philosophy emerged suggesting education was no longer a public good, but a private one. Since then we’ve seen Federal and State divestment in education, making the idea of education as the path to the American dream more of a hallucination for the poor and disenfranchised.”