Let’s see: Racism & U. S. History. 1776 or 1619? The New York Times, or Trump’s “Patriotic Education” commission? The truth is rising, or the sky is falling?
Pick your side, get in line, join the Culture War’s latest rehearsal for Armageddon.
As some once-legendary movie mogul once said of another sketchy deal, “Include me out.”
It’s not that I think the spat is irrelevant or of no consequence.
What it is for me, at least, is old hat. Yesterday’s news. Dumpster ware.
I’ve been here before.
In fact, when I first heard about it, a toddler named Barack Obama was just three years old. Maybe still in training underpants.
That would be 1964.
Near the end of that year, I signed up with the civil rights movement, in Atlanta.
It was quite a year, 1964. The Beatles.
Civil rights protests spreading. A heckuva presidential race, with Lyndon Johnson challenged by a segregation-supporting Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater. The Vietnam War simmered in the background, unnoticed but about to boil over.
By the year’s end, things were looking good: Johnson buried Goldwater in a massive election landslide, and LBJ had big plans. So did Dr. King, my new boss; I got to shake his hand in December, as he went out the office door on Auburn Avenue, headed for Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.
I was hoping to head out soon myself, to join his planned voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama early in the new year of 1965.
Although I hadn’t quite finished college yet, I knew I was back “in school,” enrolled in a long-term course of learning about this bewildering and hazardous new world of the South, its white and black tribes, their tangled, seemingly endless stories, and whether and how I might slip through a tiny crack and find a place somewhere in them.
By New Years Day, after barely a month on Dr, King’s payroll, This intense “school” had taught me one major lesson, maybe the most important: I had caught a clear glimpse of how much I didn’t know.
It was like holding on tight and looking over a railing into the Grand Canyon, taking in its depth, hundreds of feet to the floor. The sinuous turns in its course, stretched miles beyond sight in both directions, between layers of rock, in colors that could have been called psychedelic if I had known that word then. I also comprehended that only a few wrong steps were between me and a plunge into its abyss.
As part of that glimpse, a new colleague handed me a book. It was by Lerone Bennett, Jr., a writer and editor for Ebony Magazine. Ebony was the Black (then known as Negro, still an officially respectful term) counterpart of popular glossy, white-oriented magazines like LIFE and LOOK. In those years they were very popular and influential.
Bennett’s book was nearly new, published in 1962. It was also thick. And ambitious, as shown by the title: Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619–1962.
And right here I need to confess, I didn’t read the book. I believe I browsed in it. But Bennett’s title stuck, and a couple of early paragraphs:
“She came out of a violent storm,” Bennett wrote in Chapter Two, “with a story no one believed, a name no one recorded and a past no one investigated. She was manned by pirates and thieves. Her captain was a mystery man named Jope, her pilot an Englishman named Marmaduke, her cargo an assortment of Africans with sonorous Spanish names—Antony, Isabella, Pedro.
A year before the arrival of the celebrated “Mayflower,” 113 years before the birth of George Washington, 244 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, this ship sailed into the harbor at Jamestown, Virginia, and dropped anchor into the muddy waters of history.
It was clear to the men who received this “Dutch man of War” that she was no ordinary vessel. What seems unusual today is that no one sensed how extraordinary she really was. Few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo. From whence did this ship come? From somewhere on the high seas where she robbed a Spanish vessel of a cargo of Africans bound for the West Indies. Why did she stop at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America?
No one knows for sure. The captain “ptended,” John Rolfe noted, that he was in great need of food; he offered to exchange his human cargo for “victualle.” The deal was arranged. Antony, Isabella, Pedro, and 17 other Africans stepped ashore in August, 1619. The history of the Negro in America began.”
There was lots more, which I didn’t get to. But recalling this much is enough for our purpose now. Noting it, I continued to think myself a loyal American: the independence declared 157 years later in 1776 seemed overall a good thing.
Good, but hardly pure. Bennett’s book (and everyday life) showed the achievement was deeply corrupted by the six generations during which slavery had been sinking deep roots and spreading its multiple tentacles. How deeply? I had no real idea yet. These roots Dr. King and many others, now including greenhorn rookie me, were still trying to tear loose, to keep them from strangling the whole enterprise.
There was no argument here. I was too ignorant to be disillusioned by this disclosure, having been taught nothing I can recall about this saga in sixteen years of non-elite yet respectable midcentury American schooling. The work and sacrifices I was now learning of firsthand, by Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis and so many others, despite their human frailties, seemed as patriotic as were the battles of Lexington, Concord, Gettysburg and the other conventionally special places. (They still do.)
Though two generations have grown up since 1964, I’m still in that school, and exploring this other Grand Canyon of our hidden or forgotten history. (And now I’ve actually read some of the books.) There remains so much more to know, so much yet to be uncovered, un-erased. And Before the Mayflower, which has been through numerous editions in that time, continues as a landmark for me.
In fact, when the much-ballyhooed (and debated) New York Times report appeared, I shrugged:
Sure, 1619. Wait — is that a thing?
Why was anyone surprised? Doesn’t anybody teach these fancy-pants New York reporters the history of their history?? The Times and their wokeing up readers were playing catchup with Lerone Bennett, 59 years later, and thinking they had invented the triple play.
Whatever. Now we’re being subjected to efforts to squash or outlaw the Times report. These are utterly silly, shameful and I hope will be soon rolled back. Likewise, I think Bennett, who died in 2018, would be amused to find his work lumped in with something called “Critical Race Theory” as a designated corrupter of youth and threat to (white) civilization. For him, even as the book’s subtitle was revised from A History of the Negro in America to A History of Black America, this was no “theory.”
The keyword — his keyword, is history.
Our history: 1619. 1776. 1962. 2021.
Deal with it.