There is in America a sizable and powerful community that will do everything in its power to silence voices it does not want to recognize, apparently preferring to listen to its own expurgated fictions.
Case in point: Ohio’s Hudson American Legion Memorial Day parade organizers cut the volume on Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter’s mic when he began to discuss the role freed African American slaves played in organizing the first Memorial Day ceremony in 1865. Reportedly, this was because that portion of the speech, in the words of Cindy Suchan, chair of the committee and president of the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary, “was not relevant to our program for the day” and its “theme of honoring Hudson veterans.” Days before, organizers had asked Kemter to remove sections of his speech that dealt with the black origins of the celebration. He refused.
Kemter is to be commended. But media reports that describe his speech as an attempt to introduce his audience to “black history” miss the mark. Or, more precisely, they are part of the problem. The origin of Memorial Day is more than black history; it is American history, a history that includes both the tragedies of slavery, Jim Crow, and race massacres as well as the triumphs of Elijah McCoy, Florence Price, Claudette Colvin, William Grant Still, Bass Reevesand other black cowboys, Alice Ball, and Marsha P. Johnson, whose collective histories have been given short shrift, overlooked, or distorted outright by school textbooks and popular media. Until Americans realize that the contributions black and other people of color have made to America are inextricable from the nation’s history, they will continue to live in a comforting state of denial that erases anything that does not square with the fraudulent, monochromatic mythology white America manufactures to celebrate itself.
Those who deny this history are the same revisionists who cut mics and vow to “Make America Great Again,” that “again” implying that American greatness is a relic of the past that must be restored by any means necessary, including voting rights and voter suppression, redistricting, and Capitol insurrections. It does not take a genius to realize that by “great,” they mean “white.” The same applies to the more ominous imperative “Keep America Great.” For in their eyes, adding tincture to that history invites national ruin and racial decline. It is not a coincidence that these slogans would be adopted after America’s first black president left office and as people of color “flood across its borders,” threatening to turn “their” land into a white-minority nation.
We’ve seen American history whitewashed and bowdlerized before. After all, it was only a month ago that Rick Santorum told a conservative youth group, “We [read white people] birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but, candidly, there isn’t much Native America culture in American culture.”
To say that the erstwhile senator and short-lived CNN pundit knows not of what he speaks would be an understatement rivaled only by the vastness of his abysmal ignorance. Apparently, Santorum is unaware that Native American governments, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, served as inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, a fact even Congress, his old stomping ground, formally acknowledged in 1988.
Santorum claims he “misspoke.” “I had no intention of minimizing or in any way devaluing Native American culture,” he said, adding, “The way we treated Native Americans was horrific. It goes against everything I have done and everything I have fought for as a leader in Congress” [my emphasis]. If, as Samuel Johnson once observed, “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,” then the use of the past tense to describe ongoing inequities in America and its failure to recognize how the past intersects the present is the last refuge of charlatans, at least until they are fired by CNN, resign, or get their organization’s charter suspended. Still, America is a large country; in time, they will find shelter somewhere else (FOX News? Newsmax? Blaze Media?).
One might have assumed that Santorum, who promotes himself as a defender of the Constitution, would know a little something about its origins, if only to better fight for it – and those who inspired it creation.
This refusal to own up to history is bound to worsen. For these revisionists, acknowledgment of such contributions constitutes “white replacement.” In their eyes, real history must be white writ large. As America grows blacker, browner, redder, and yellower, their fears of replacement are bound to grow more intense, their response, more violent.
One might be encouraged by the fact that a countermovement to recognize the contributions of people of color to this country has emerged. In the year since George Floyd’s murder, not only has the mainstream media discovered black people but, in the wake of brutal assaults on Asian Americans, it has also taken nascent steps to recognize their presence as well – and beyond “model minority” stereotypes designed to keep African Americans in their place, Asians Americans complacent, and both communities divided against each other. Sadly, there is a long way to go before the past and present contributions of Asian Americans are recognized: a recent survey revealed that 42% of Americans could not name a famous Asian American; only 2% named Kamala Harris. But then America has always seen itself in shades of black and white.
It is also encouraging that after one hundred years, the Tulsa massacre is finally receiving its due. Still, this bloodied page from U.S. history had to be filtered through white consciousness before being offered up in various guises for national consumption: a gut-wrenching prologue to HBO’s Watchmen, a Tom Hanks-penned New York Times op-ed, a long overdue statement by a sitting president. This may simply reflect the post-Floyd epiphany spawned by the advent of cell phones, bodycams, and social media that, to paraphrase James Baldwin, provide evidence of things (previously) not seen and that now make visible the daily and, it seems, perennial spectacle of the black trauma. However, black communities experienced these traumas long before the emergence of these ubiquitous technologies of surveillance, but the evidence was typically denied by those responsible for their pain.
Technological advances aside, not much has changed. Over a half-century ago, despite the fact that black writers and journalists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Marvel Cooke, and, of course, Baldwin himself had given voice to the existential pain inflicted by American racism, it took the artificially darkened likes of John Howard Griffin, Bill Steigerwald, and Grace Halsell – white journalists in blackface who chronicled their experiences with racism as ersatz blacks –to convince some white people that real black people were not just making shit up. And yet today, despite a flood of evidence, some remain unconvinced, while those who are convinced appear unable to effect meaningful change.
Ironically, these days blackface is not required to whitewash history. Almost a decade ago, the late comedian Paul Mooney joked that Hollywood had cast Meryl Streep as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a biopic. Mooney was not too far off. In fact, in 2019 it was revealed that in 1994, the head of a Hollywood studio seriously suggested Julia Roberts for the role. When it was pointed out that Tubman was black, he reported replied, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
The fact that a studio head would seriously consider casting Roberts as Tubman is symptomatic not only of the nation’s chronic historical amnesia but also of the belief that white history, or, more precisely, history made white, is the only real history. And not just American history. Hollywood will crank out miniseries like Shogun (1980) and films like TheLast Samurai (2003), yet the first foreigner to actually become a samurai, a sixteenth century African named Yasuke, has yet to have a Hollywood film made of his life. And the currently streaming heavily fictionalized eponymous animated Netflix miniseries that was made features mutants, wizards, witches, and giant robots that turn history – “Black”? “Japanese”? “African”? “World”? – into a tepidly trendy and ultimately safe ahistorical phantasmagoria. As Daily Beast film critic Nick Schager wrote in his favorable review of the show, “a history lesson is not what’s provided by [the] anime series.” And sadly, though not unexpectedly, therein lies the rub. The late Chadwick Boseman was to star in a live-action film about Yasuke, but those plans died with his untimely death, apparently because there are no other black actors who could assume the role. So much for another teachable moment.
Then again, maybe they’ll cast Julia Roberts.
1/ In referring to black people in this article, I have chosen not to capitalize “black” until substantive transformation of American police enforcement and the criminal justice system that results in the criminal prosecution of those who use excessive force and produces a quantifiable, long-term reduction in the number of police killings and brutalization of black people is realized.
2/ The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Native American population, which currently stands at 5 million, will reach 8.6 million.
3/ According to Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, currently comprising 7% of the U.S. population.
4/ An equal opportunity race masquerader, Halsell also passed herself off as a Latina, Navajo and “Mexican illegal.” See In Their Shoes (1996).