In the company of people who tell historical truths
As usual, my writing space is beginning to shrink between growing stacks of books on either side of my laptop. Distinct about this particular set of books is that each author tells a form of historical truth about social and economic stratification in a country that claims to uphold the freedom and general welfare of its citizens. In a year I have determined to invest specifically in learning more history, these books offer me entry points that pierce and deflate the mythological American History I grew up with in school.
Professor Carol Anderson’s White Rage shook me the first time I read it in 2016. My then 9 y-o and I were reading John Lewis’s graphic memoir March aloud and I remember being so grateful for Professor Anderson’s foundational text as a backup resource. I remember being astonished at and ashamed of my ignorance of Black US History beyond the standard Harriet, Frederick, Martin, Rosa, and Malcolm narratives.
Thanks to The #ClearTheAir initiative founded by Valeria Brown, I had occasion to dig into White Rage again in 2019; this time in community. Reading and discussing the book with fellow learners on Twitter and Voxer ushered in a new understanding of so much untold history and also a thirst for more. This time around, I found myself more than shocked to read about the state supported influx of cocaine used to finance the Contras in Nicaragua in the early 1980's, while the proliferation of crack in urban centers wreaked havoc on Black communities across the country. This happened during my lifetime. I was in my early 20’s, living in Washington, DC and heard the terms thrown about but was too insulated to make the connections. Professor Anderson leaves nothing to the imagination:
Each of the Reagan administration’s decisions undercut the supposed stated goals of protecting American families, preventing the flow of drugs from washing onto the nation’s shores, or bringing democracy to a war-torn society. The decision to fund the Contras with profits from the sale of cocaine, for example, came at a time when the economic downturn had created high unemployment, increasing homelessness, the depletion of savings, and other major stressors, which only heightened the possibility of creating a drug addicted society at the very moment when narcotics use had actually stabilized or decreased. (White Rage, p. 130)
I read the whole chapter going ‘What? What?! WHAT?!” How could that be? My naivety was showing. Page after page, Professor Anderson painstakingly documents hundreds of ways Black advancement has routinely been met with white backlash. And not only the kind in hooded garb and violent attacks:
White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its ways through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks its havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation drawn to the spectacular — to what it can see. (p. 3)
Sobering, to say the least. My naivety was being taken to task. Considering the invisible episodes of history I am forced to recognize is a deeply counter-cultural undertaking. It also dawns on me whose interests are best served by keeping certain histories out of sight and out of mind.
Meanwhile, other authors have shown me how history can present itself in poetry and novels. Tommy Orange’s acclaimed portrayal of urban Indians in There, There includes a prologue and interlude which provide historical context for understanding his characters and the current state of Native American groups in the US. What stood out for me was the way he explains our reception and processing of history depending on our identity vantage point. He writes:
If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. (There, There, p. 138–39)
I spent my school years learning the history of American innocence which I now recognize as white American innocence. I was never taught to differentiate history by perspective. I learned to take the victor’s story as gospel. I never received an invitation to consider how narratives of the past were constructed to produce a particular outcome. I never knew there was a sleeping tiger. What I was given instead were dates and names, villains and heroes, saviors, savages and an understanding that the steady march of progress always demands sacrifices. I learned to tune out during history class. It seemed to have so little to offer me.
I’m all grown up now and can choose to study what and when I choose. The more I seek, the more I find. Every time I want to fret a little more about the future, I run into a bevy of wise ones reminding me that every scenario and forecast has a history behind it. In this way I’ve met many different people who have been able to share history with me through journalism, personal essays, travelogues, and poetry.
As Native American poet Layli Long Soldier ventures to tell us about the Sioux Uprising in “38”, she cautions us:
I may jump around and details will not unfold in chronological order.
Keep in mind, I am not a historian
So I will recount facts as best I can, given limited resources and understanding.
(Whereas, p. 50)
She recounts then how 38 Dakota men were executed by hanging in December 1862 as retribution for leading an armed uprising against settlers and trappers in the area. Abraham Lincoln signed the decree authorizing the executions in the same week he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. One part of that history we commonly learn; the other part, we don’t. In relating this episode, Long Soldier describes the conditions that led to the Sioux uprising. Through uneven treaties and broken promises of the US government, coupled with the steady erosion of rights to land, hunting grounds and eventually money, the Dakota people were left to starve. And rather than starve to death, several decided to fight back.
I see that part of my task involves listening closely also to voices not officially assigned to the recording of events and facts. When I open ears and eyes to stories in time, told by people whose lives were shaped in unique ways by those stories, chances are my heart will also open to the full humanity I was missing in all those classroom discussions of leaders, churches, treaties and war.
As I age and broaden my reading selection, I will continue to bump up against my ignorance of history. The myths I held about ‘a more perfect union’ which supports ‘liberty and justice for all’ have crumbled. I count this as a positive development. The tiger is awake and so am I.
Carol Anderson, White Rage, The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. NY: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Tommy Orange, There, There, NY: Knopf, 2018.
Layli Long Soldier, Whereas, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017.