One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this- to face their history, to change their lives-hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On- the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
The racism and white supremacy that were on full display at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally is symptomatic of a United States culture that has whitewashed its history, ignored its rampant human rights abuses and stowed away the darkest corners of its past to formulate a distorted view of American exceptionalism predicated on white supremacy. America was built on slavery, genocide, violence, and white male supremacy that exploited others for profit and power for centuries and still do to this day. The moral high ground of American exceptionalism that some people have taken to condemn the rally’s hate, with claims of “this is not America,” demonstrates a historical obliviousness or refusal to accept responsibility for this history.
In a 1965 essay, titled Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes, James Baldwin wrote:
During the 16th to 18th centuries, an estimated 20 to 30 million Africans were kidnapped and shackled onto ships, forced to embark on the middle passage across the Atlantic during the height of the slave trade. Millions died on the voyage due to starvation, torture, disease, and murder. About half a million of those who survived were brought to the colonies that would eventually become the United States. Those slaves fueled emerging industries in the New World, rendering profits and wealth for white elites throughout the colonies. Preceding the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, slavery was inextricably linked to the southern economy, but the racism and white supremacy that held it up was not relegated to the south alone. Nor did it end with the Civil War, rather the 13th amendment to the Constitutionrebranded slavery under mass incarceration, the reconstruction era ushered in the Jim Crow era, and lynchings and violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan were perpetuated to reinforce the systems of oppression and subjugation that the institution of slavery upheld.
In the same time period as the United States emerged as a new nation, native Americans across the country were being brutally murdered and forced off their lands. British forces in the colonies deliberately infected Native American populations with smallpox so they could steal their land and resources. The founding fathers stole many ideas from the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations and put them in the United States Constitution, and ironically did not yield the rights they outlined in it to Native Americans. Displacement of Native Americans was pushed and policies cultivated by the federal government, with the Trail of Tears of the most notable under President Andrew Jackson, forcing around 17,000 Cherokees from their home in the southeastern United States, including an additional estimated 33,000 Native Americans from other tribes. Estimated death tolls from the forced removal range from 5,000 to 25,000 men, women, and children. This practice was expanded under manifest destiny, a policy based on white supremacy that began in the 1840’s propagating the idea that white settlers had the right to expand and seize land wherever they wanted.
Government policies and sentiments that were predicated on white supremacy are still implemented and pushed for today. They’ve amended and evolved in different ways over the past few centuries to assimilate to contemporary applications that still assert the same goals. Invoking the moral authority of a nation that was built and founded on white supremacy, and has upheld it ever since at the degradation of others, does nothing to challenge those notions of white supremacy. Rather, it diverts responsibility and accountability for it to the most extreme and concrete examples of it.
The continued historical interpretation that the tyranny, oppression, racism, and violence that American history was built on are minor footnotes to an otherwise flattering, prideful narrative is immersed in a self-denial our country is swept up in. This self-denial enables these structural injustices to continue within our society unabated. It shouldn’t take disturbing events for even peace-loving Americans working for diversity, inclusion, and justice to reflect on the mindset that made Confederate symbols and white supremacy publicly adored and lauded an acceptable and widespread practice for so long.