Can America Ever Recover From Its History?

Teaching Korean kindergarteners about Rosa Parks involves a lot of backstory. The story doesn’t begin on that bus in Alabama. Its roots are profoundly sad and incomprehensible. I found myself saying things like, “White people didn’t like black people,” and really struggling to find a simple answer to their, “Why?” It is an oversimplification for sure, but slavery and its legacy in America is both undeniably understood as a construct of capitalism yet difficult to comprehend in a moral context. I’ve been reading lots of articles in reaction to the Charleston shootings and the subsequently justified Confederate flag bashing. That flag, no matter what the Duke boys or Lindsey Graham may say, represents the former Confederate States of America, which implicitly represents the institution of American slavery.

Slavery’s history in the Americas is deep and deadly. In the 300+ years of the African slave trade, around 12 million Africans were shipped (10 million survived the passage) to the New World, of which only about half a million were sent to North America to work the sugar and cotton fields. (Brazil took the bulk with around five million.) The average life expectancy of black slaves was 21, half the average age of whites. Families were broken as children were sold away from parents, wives taken from husbands. The culture and traditions of their African life slowly faded away from memory. There are now over 40 million black people living in USA, many of whom are possible descendants of those initial slaves.

The master/slave relationship was conflicting at best and viciously cruel at the worst. White masters invoked sexual rights upon their female “property”, which created internal color discrimination and confusion within the modern black community. Jim Crow laws continued the debasement and mistreatment of the black population for a century after the end of the war. That knowledge of “otherness” must lay dormant or even actively stewing inside many subconsciouses. “What happens to a dream deferred?” How do we expect to move on together as a country with such gaping wounds festering beneath a Band-Aid of polite prejudices?

White supremacy still exists as exhibited by the recent shooting in Charleston. Black disenfranchisement and intangible exclusion still exists as evidenced by the events of Baltimore and Ferguson. That’s just the past year! Our history is riddled with racial tension boiling into murder from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. MLK murdered, Rodney King beaten before acquitting the responsible officers, prompting the L.A. riots. The scab is constantly being ripped away before any healing occurs. The Confederate flag is like lemon in those fresh wounds.

Southerners seem to have more geographical pride than those winter loving Northerners; and the de facto symbol for many is that same (hateful to some, heritage to others) battle flag of Northern Virginia. I’ve always wondered about their pride and where it originates. It may be in defiance of losing a war and holding on to any semblance of power from that loss. It may be the nostalgic memory of the genteel Southern gentleman a la “Gone With the Wind”. It may be the understandable, but misdirected pride for one’s home. I speculate, but it may just be more personal than general in nature. Nevertheless, that flag isn’t helping anything and shouldn’t and needn’t represent anyone or anything besides hate groups now. The rainbow flag has been coopted by the LGBT community and there’s no going back now. It’s theirs. The moment the KKK or now this terrorist douchebucket in Charleston used this flag as their symbol was the minute it no longer represented the feel good NASCAR days of Dixie.

The larger problem within this flag argument is America’s fascination with guns. An old amendment from an antiquated age of armed civilian safeguards ensured that American citizens would always be able to purposefully, hatefully or even accidentally kill each other or ourselves with firearms until the end of time. The powerful lobby of the NRA and the common idiocy of many Americans fearing a helpless country without guns will only strengthen our circle of violence to continue. We’re not getting rid of guns and we’re not getting rid of racism anytime soon. The best we can do is follow Gandhi and our dorky sophomore English teacher’s trite maxim to “be the change we want to see in the world.” For a “Christian” nation, you’d think not killing and loving our neighbor would be second nature, but apparently not if they look different than you.

The even larger picture presents something just as damning and disturbing as our intractable gun laws, deep-seated racism and symbols of hate masquerading as cultural heritage. Slavery still exists! Sexual slavery, wage slavery, bonded labor, abused migrant laborers, child workers, forced marriages, or sweatshops all feature some terrible and familiar horrors. We’ve heard the stories of Bangladeshi girls sewing shirts for 14 hours a day for 50$ a month, indentured servants of Indian brick kilns, or stolen girls sold into sexual depravity. The world can be an ugly place. “Man is the cruelest animal,” said Nietzsche. And we are. But we can and will change. Change takes time, change isn’t easy, and “change is the only constant of life,” said Heraclitus. The pessimist in me is aware of the possibility of pure chaos, pure human suffering, and the absolute terror we could unleash if the precarious balance of mutual comfort is disrupted. However, if we progress through personal evolution and eliminate our prejudiced Ego for our gregarious and collectively beneficial Super-ego, America may find harmony by association.

The following speech from Ethiopian emperor and inspiration of Bob Marley’s Rastaman chant, “Jah Live!” gives us an idea of the enormous mountain we still have to climb. Or have a listen here

“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.” 

– Haile Selassie I

The Lynching of Lige Daniels. 3 August 1920, Center, Texas. Without Santuary, plate 54

The Lynching of Lige Daniels. 3 August 1920, Center, Texas. Without Santuary, plate 54

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