“One of the teachers of religion who was standing there listening to the discussion realized that Jesus had answered well. So he asked, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus replied, ‘The one that says, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only God. And you must love Him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. The second is: You must love others as much as yourself.’ No other commandments are greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
I have hemmed and hawed enough. And, by doing so, I am part of the problem here in America.
I’ve often answered the discrimination against the impoverished, how our society automatically assumes that someone who is poor brought it on themselves, that they are lazy and do not want to work. However, I seldom answer our society’s systemic racism…even though I have been aware of it since I was a very young girl.
An aunt of mine recently did the swab test with Ancestry and, through some further research, discovered that the ancestor we were always taught had sailed into Canada out of France, actually was Spanish and sailed out of the Azores. We have some Spanish and Portuguese blood running through our veins, along with the French, but the French came later as those Spanish and/or Portuguese ancestors married French-Canadians. They also married into the Mohawk tribe along the way. Once they get to New England, we find some Narragansett as well. However, that French blood, along with some Polish, Russian, Scots-Irish, English, and German won out in the gene pool: I am as close to fish-belly white as it is possible to be.
I tell this because, as someone of fair skin and eyes and hair, I am not subject to the level of discrimination that my black and brown brothers and sisters deal with on a regular basis. I don’t have anyone redlining me when I apply for a loan/mortgage. I don’t have store clerks watching me too closely when I shop. I don’t have outraged people assuming when I apply for and/or receive government assistance that I’m here illegally. I typically don’t have a lot of generalizations lobbed at me either. Sure, I am a woman. Traditionally, I do not earn the same wage as my male counterparts, even when doing the same job with the same qualifications. I may hear the occasional old-timer saying how I should find a “nice” man to take care of me. However, despite some parallels that tend to smart at times, I don’t presume to know what life is like here in America for my black and brown brothers and sisters. To say that I do would be the biggest slap in the face that anyone could offer.
But I can witness to something that has been bandied about a lot here in the media since the murder of George Floyd last week: the history of America as told in our schools through the eyes of white historians.
I have an old history book on the shelf. It’s not a Board of Education approved copy. I doubt it was ever used in a classroom here in the U.S., but it is a good reference source. I wanted something that I could refer to about various points in our written history that typically don’t get taught in our schools…or even as a point of common knowledge.
Why is this important?
Because our history books typically prop up “heroes” such as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, for example, without telling the full story. How did they get to be “heroes”? What did they do? And, as with any story, debate, etc. there is always another side. Still using Custer as an example, what was it like for the Native Americans who were, at best, displaced by him? Do our Native American brothers and sisters view him as a “hero”? And have we ever asked our Native American brothers and sisters why?
The history book I have is The Oxford History of the American People. It was written by an Englishman named Samuel Eliot Morison in 1965. It is older than I am. However, as we have a long history of purely “white” history, I’m thinking it still has some relevancy in showing how our history lessons are often slanted in one perpetual direction.
According to Mr. Morison, Custer “liked and respected” the Native American people (Morison 751-752) yet his book says nothing about the Washita Massacre, for example. It says nothing about how Custer’s 7th U.S. Calvary attacked Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyenne camp on the morning of November 27, 1868 in what is now Oklahoma. And it wasn’t all “braves” that were massacred. It was women and children and the elderly. Does that sound like someone who “liked” and “respected” our Native American brothers and sisters? I didn’t learn about this through any history class. Ironically, it was through an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which got me curious enough to do some independent research into this little-known episode in our history.
It was a Danielle Steel novel, Silent Honor, that brought attention to the Japanese Internment camps here in America during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that led to the FBI first rounding up 1291 Japanese community and religious leaders, “arresting them without evidence” and freezing their assets (Wikipedia). Later, some 117,000 people were relocated to facilities in Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota. Japanese Americans–and most of them were American citizens–were detained in overcrowded barracks without proper plumbing or cooking facilities, and there were armed guards making sure they did not leave without permission. And, yes, I know Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source of information but it is a good jumping off point for learning more.
Ironically, the American frontier image of ranchers, cowboys, etc. lassoing cattle comes directly from Spanish landowners in Mexico who taught local Indians how to herd cattle and ride horses (Livingston 1). They called them vaqueros, after the Spanish word for “cow”. A good portion of our Southwestern states were part of the spoils of armed conflict with Mexico. While I found a mention of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which promised Spanish and/or Californio landowners in this newly acquired territory (present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and some parts of Colorado and Wyoming) the same “full enjoyment and protection of their property as if they were citizens of the U.S.” (Wikipedia), it does not teach about how most of these former citizens of Mexico lost their land claims in lawsuits before U.S. state and federal courts. In short, we swindled most of the ranchers of their lands.
While I do remember reading about such legendary black leaders as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks in my high school history classes, this particular book does not mention them at all. And most history books tend to gloss over the very real struggles that black leaders have had to make for each new freedom gained. For how many decades did black Americans have to use a separate bathroom, water fountain and/or library, etc. than white Americans? Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Alabama, how many black Americans, no matter how tired, sick or aged, gave up their seats rather than face certain consequences? And how often do we hear how “they” are different than us somehow, as if we don’t all bleed the same, throughout our conscious dialogue each day?
Again, it would be a slap in the face for me to say that I understand or can comprehend. I cannot. However, I cannot be silent anymore either to the disparities that I have seen between one group of Americans versus another group of Americans. There is only one race. And that is the human race.
If we’re going to teach our students about American history, shouldn’t it reflect the wide tapestry of humanity that is America in the first place? Shouldn’t that history impartially teach us how it was for each and every culture that has, and does, grace these shores?
May God bless you & keep you!
Livingston, Phil. “The History of the Vaquero.” American Cowboy.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. Oxford University Press, 1965.
Steel, Danielle. Silent Honor. Dell Publishing, Inc., 2007.
“Washita: Part I.” Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The Sullivan Company, CBS Entertainment Production, 29 April 1995.
Wikipedia. Internment of Japanese Americans, n/d.
Wikipedia. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, n.d.