Home > Uncategorized > Racism and the Shadow Side of American History – posted 6/6/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/14/2020

Racism and the Shadow Side of American History – posted 6/6/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/14/2020

The names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are the latest on a very long list. A few years back it was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Laquan McDonald.

Racist killings of black people run deep in America’s DNA. I would suggest these killings can only be understood in the context of American history, a history that remains dishonestly told.

There is a narrative war about that history. What I would call the heroic or triumphalist narrative has been, far and way, the dominant story. This version features great presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR), the Constitution and an independent judiciary and Manifest Destiny. There were wars along the way, especially the Revolution, the Civil War and World War 2 but this is a story of a great nation built and overcoming adversities.

This version is much loved by mainstream politicians, most newspapers and media outlets and school boards. It is a top-down story, safe and sanitized history.

Unfortunately, this is only one side of the coin. The dark or shadow side is still obscured and there has been an extensive effort to hide it away that amounts to a cover-up.

I think we need to re-look at what we call American history. Bill Barr recently said that the winners write history and that is the problem. It is why we as a society remain incapable of responding to murders like George Floyd’s. We miss what our blinders do not let us see.

If we tried to look at the whole tapestry of American history we would see something very different than a triumphalist narrative. As the historian Walter Johnson has written, American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness. The genocide of Native Americans paved the way for the creation of mass plantation slavery.

In his new book, The Broken Heart of America, Johnson presents a re-telling of American history. The book challenges all prevailing views of what we thought American history was about. Johnson acquaints us with an alternative perspective and a largely unknown cast of characters. Where characters are known, Johnson sees them in a new light. Others he mentions seem to have been purged from collective memory.

When Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase territories to Thomas Jefferson and the United States he did so without regard for the Native American inhabitants of that land. Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west, in part, to spy on and enumerate the Indians and to announce to them the subordination of their nations to the United States.

Indian removal was a central project of the westward expansion and it was incredibly violent. Many of the treaties made were with Indians who were being dispossessed a second time. Johnson discusses the role of William Harney, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a white supremacist. The Native Americans called him “Woman Killer”. Harney later became a general. He was a southerner and a slaveholder.

Harney gained fame for leading a viciously punitive expedition against the Sioux in 1854. He was selected by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War (and later president of the Confederacy), for the Sioux mission. Harney would not accept the Sioux’s request to negotiate. His forces trapped and massacred 86 men, women and children. Earlier, in 1834, Harney had beaten an enslaved woman, Hannah, to death with his cane. He had misplaced his keys and he blamed her for hiding them.

Harney’s actions in killing Hannah were questioned by authorities but he was never punished. After his case was removed to a pro-slavery jurisdiction he was quickly acquitted of murder. Harney’s acquittal is an early historical example of the type of justice we have so frequently seen where police avoid punishment even in the relatively rare situations where they are charged.

Johnson also tells the story of Frances McIntosh, a free Black sailor who was lynched in St. Louis in 1836.This is likely the first lynching in the history of the United States.

Two white men accosted McIntosh on the street. Because there was no uniformed police in the city in 1836, McIntosh resisted when the white men tried to drag him to jail. He drew a knife and killed one of the men. He tried to kill the other as well.

McIntosh attempted to escape but he was surrounded by a crowd of 50 men who took him to jail. A further mob formed, moved on the jail and they removed McIntosh. He was moved a couple blocks away. The neighborhood fire company proceeded to stack wood around McIntosh’s feet. McIntosh begged to be shot as he was burned alive. No one was ever convicted of this murder either.

The newspaperman, Elijah Lovejoy reported the story in his newspaper the St. Louis Observer. The reaction against Lovejoy was so fierce, he had to leave St. Louis for Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi. He had already survived three attacks on his printing press. The judge who had refused to convict anyone in McIntosh’s case made remarks insinuating that abolitionists, including Lovejoy, had incited McIntosh in the stabbings.

In the following year, a St. Louis mob sought out Lovejoy and set fire to the Illinois warehouse where he kept his press. Lovejoy was shot and the mob literally carried his press down to the banks of the Mississippi where they broke it into pieces and tossed it into the Mississippi. Lovejoy became the first abolitionist martyr. No one was ever convicted of Lovejoy’s murder. The jury foreman was a member of the mob attacking Lovejoy and the judge also doubled as a witness in the proceedings.

In the early 20th century, Johnson recounts the story of the East St Louis Massacre of 1917. Over a two day period in July 1917, a mob of over 1000 white men turned on their black neighbors, shooting them, hanging them from lampposts and burning their bodies in the street. Other cities including Chicago and Tulsa experienced similar massacres.

I offer these vignettes to show the depth of our white supremacist history. They are arbitrary but quite representative. When people wonder why nothing ever changes with police murders of black people, I would cite history. We have remained unwilling to look at and acknowledge the centrality of racism in the American experience.

We need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as was done in South Africa after apartheid. The purpose would not be to determine guilt or innocence of historical actors. It is about bearing witness and truth-telling so there is a more honest historical record.

When there have been efforts to look at our history, such as with the Kerner Commission in the 1960’s, the government and corporate leaders ignored the commission’s findings.

It is past time to get over the fairy tale version of American history. To extirpate racism and white supremacy, we need to study it, understand its manifestations, and dig it up by the institutional roots.

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