Learning/understanding what actually happened is a vital step in dealing with the ramifications of what happened. The legalized institution of slavery that gave rights to people of European heritage and took away the rights of people of African heritage officially ended close to 150 years ago. However, the color system that was first sanctioned by slave laws was then supported by formal and informal measures to maintain the structural, social and political relationships among African descendants and European descendants in the United States. A few examples of these measures include Jim Crow laws, re-enslavement practices, extra-judicial enforcement of alleged crimes, racial discrimination within the judicial system and sundown town practices (enforced segregation in communities after sundown). These examples, among others, inform discriminatory laws, attitudes and practices that we still deal with today. To make sense of today, we must learn the histories of our families, communities, regions and nation.
The history that gets passed down is a mixture of facts, personal experience, beliefs and feelings. The depth of hurt it caused and who tells or writes history determines the parts that get passed down and those that remain untold. In some cases, the feelings and beliefs get passed down without the facts. Sometimes facts alone are relayed. In other instances facts are changed – intentionally and unintentionally – based on people’s experience.
History can be passed down in writing, orally, codified through law or represented in art. However, due to the traumatic nature of slavery and its other manifestations post-1864, either things have been left unsaid and unwritten or lack channels through which they are communicated. For example, there are many books on library shelves that are left unread because school curriculum, popular media and family stories do not indicate that the content in those books exists or should be explored. Information is also promulgated that is untrue or misconstrued. For example, the films “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” depicted slavery in a way that was not accurate, but their popularity among European American audiences formed or strengthened erroneous beliefs about history. Lack of information or erroneous information has a cost. When people don’t learn about the contributions of African Americans during the time of enslavement and post-enslavement, they believe that black people are less entitled to be here and are less likely to make current contributions. These expectations influence teachers, potential employers and most important, people themselves. When people only learn about good things white people have done, white people gain un-entitled superiority and are blinded to their past and on-going discriminatory behavior. When only negative things are told about black or white people, fear and distrust get passed down.
In many people’s families, there is a direct connection to slavery through an ancestor’s involvement in enslaving (whether through direct ownership, leasing, overseeing, investments or enforcement) or experience of enslavement. These family histories reveal insights about family patterns and beliefs. However, even recent immigrants’ lives are touched by the history of enslavement. They navigate segregated communities, face barriers related to skin color, and enjoy an economy that gained its initial strength and first became a player in the global economy through cotton exports and other wealth related to slavery – not to mention the slave labor responsible for creating the initial infrastructure –that also contributed to the economy we have today. Both the economic benefits and the real on-going costs must be examined by all citizens to better understand the United States. Although in the past, history is not irrelevant; it created the foundation upon which we stand, walk and build on a daily basis.
Facing History Practices:
There are a number of practices/strategies that help us face history. There are already many volumes that include aspects of the history of slavery and the period after emancipation when so many laws, structures and institutions were established to maintain the disenfranchisement or impede the progress of development of African Americans. Reading and encouraging others to read a range of these works is an important start in understanding the mixture of facts and experiences. There are also a number of areas related to slavery and its aftermath that have been underexposed. The impact on slave-holders of accepting an inhumane practice for material gain, re-enslavement practices, exclusionary practices of African Americans, “revitalization” projects that destroyed African American communities, business and home-ownership are a few of the areas that have been under-examined. Additional primary research is needed that includes examining original documents and oral history (which get’s more difficult as each generation passes on). Academic institutions and foundations can support this work through fellow-ships and dedicated funding to these areas of research. Elementary and secondary schools can also support oral history projects and interview projects with family members. Work on mechanisms for the telling of the history also need to be created in order to provide access to important historical information. Conferences and print and visual media’s commitment to sharing history, television programming, funding for writing and documentary film production and showings, inclusion of new information in school curriculums, museums, displays in museums, public markers in communities, plays, poetry readings, and re-enactments are some of the mechanisms that will convey the history.