Reframing vs. Rewriting
In the wake of our 244th Independence Day, amid an epic global pandemic as well as the most significant social protests in half a century, it is a good time to step back to reflect on what’s going on and think about it critically. In doing that, we must wrestle with the truth of our history, which is inextricably woven into a fabric of wiping out indigenous people and taking their land which was then developed into a productive, wealth-producing asset through the slave-labor of (initially) Africans brought to our shores through forced immigration. The white colonists of both the northern and southern English settlements, under the auspices of the British crown (the French, Dutch, and Portuguese were also involved in the colonization of North and South America, of course) drove out or eliminated the indigenous population and built a massive, powerful Empire on the backs of oppressed peoples (Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown!). Whether it was African slave labor of the South, the Northern factory wage-slaves, the Chinese railroad laborers, or the Latinx farm workers that (still) produce the food supply feeding the Empire, the wealth reaped by White men allowed those same White men to write the narrative not only of Independence Day but of United States history --- the historical narrative of White Supremacy that Donald Trump is flailing to “save” and “protect.”
We do not need to re-write our history, we simply need to re-frame it and tell it truthfully (I highly recommend reading the New York Times’s brilliant 1619 Project as one place to start). Removing statues of Confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus (the first White person to wipe out thousands of indigenous North American people) are simply a first step in re-framing the story of our country. Re-locating these statues in museums, with proper explanations of who they were and what they did, would serve a valuable educational purpose in presenting a more accurate version of United States history. It’s equally important to educate people about the “Lost Cause” narrative that Trump ascribes to, a faulty explanation about the Civil War first promoted in Edward Pollard’s 1866 book (of the same name) and used as justification for not only erecting Confederate statues (and incorporating the Confederate battle flag in Southern State flags) but also for creating the Jim Crow South starting in the nineteenth century.
“The Lost Cause” narrative, if you are not familiar or aware, is this:
The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more adherent to Christian values than the allegedly greedy North. It portrayed slavery as more benevolent than cruel, alleging that it taught Christianity and "civilization." Stories of happy slaves were often used as propaganda in an effort to defend slavery; the United Daughters of the Confederacy had a "Faithful Slave Memorial Committee," and erected the Heyward Shepherd monument in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. These stories would be used to explain slavery to Northerners. Many times they also portrayed slave owners being kind to their slaves. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause says that the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine. At the peak of troop strength in 1863, Union soldiers outnumbered Confederate soldiers by over two to one, and financially the Union had three times the bank deposits of the Confederacy. (wiki)
According to the “Lost Cause,” the Southern States were likened to the British Colonies, fighting a war against “Northern Aggression.” A tyrannical Federal authority(read: Northern, strong centralized government) was attempting to wipe out the “states-rights” loving Southern States. The Lost Cause danced around the issue of slavery being central to the Southern rebellion and it presented the Confederates as noble warriors and not really different from their Norther (white) “brethren” they battled against. By the turn of the 20th Century, the “Lost Cause” narrative had succeeded in reinforcing white supremacy in the North and South. Woodrow Wilson’s screening The Birth of a Nation, a film that promoted not only “The Lost Cause” philosophy but, worse, presented the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and saviors of White, Christian culture only added to the White narrative (as did Wilson’s re-segregating Federal agencies). As noted in Wikipedia:
the film portrays African-Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. The film presents the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and a white supremacist social order. . . The film has been acknowledged as an inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which took place only a few months after its release.
If you look critically at 20th Century United States history you can see how the system of protecting white power and privilege --- through Jim Crow laws, housing statutes, segregated schooling, and a wide variety of exclusionary practices against not only Black people but also Brown, Red, and Yellow people, perpetuated the United States that we live in today.
Donald Trump, as we know, appeals to White grievance and the bizarre sense that, somehow, it is White people who are “under attack,” and it is White (Christian) “culture” which needs to be saved from “barbarians at the gates.” And there is certainly an audience for his prejudice. White privilege-deniers, climate-change deniers, pandemic-deniers are all on Trump’s bandwagon. Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued White people (South and North) created a myth of violent, criminal Blacks (and Brown/Red/Yellow people) --- often resulting in law-enforcement treating those populations as a “natural” criminal class, using disproportionate force against those people (at three times the rate of force used against White people). It is only with the advent of smartphone video that White people have begun to see what was often sloughed off as “complaining” by people-of-color --- police (and vigilante) violence against those people of color. Even with this preponderance of video evidence it has taken the election of a Black Man followed by the election of a White Supremacist to bring the Race kettle to a boil in this country. And what that boiling kettle requires is an honest re-framing of how we look at our history --- not a “re-writing.” Recognizing that the original writing was a biased version, a slanted version, a version that clearly privileged one group over all others --- and portrayed those others as “less than” in subtle and sometimes blatant ways --- is the starting place for White people. People of Color know the version(s) of United States history that we White folks have ignored --- consciously or unconsciously, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s not about Guilt and Blame (Trump’s tools). It’s about honesty and open-mindedness, about clarification and understanding. It’s about a willingness to live up to the “Mission Statement” that was declared on July 4, 1776. Where do we stand on that notion that “all men are created equal?” A critical re-framing of United States history may well be a positive first step in getting there.