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The Perils of National Amnesia

“It was freedom to destroy freedom.”

“It was freedom to destroy freedom.”

Jesse Williams’ provocative and heart-wrenching speech at the BET Awards on June 26 made me recall the words of W.E.B. Du Bois. History is dangerously repeating itself, mirroring many of the events around the world during the first half of the 20th century, including the rise of fascism, Jim Crow and apartheid. We’ve seen displays of xenophobia in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, like young men in Manchester who verbally assaulted a man on the bus with racist language. On our side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump, the current presidential GOP front-runner, uses xenophobic and racist language as the basis for fortifying nationalism, to the applause of millions.

Du Bois exposed how much the legacy of colonialism, slavery and empire that have produced the idea that racial identity and national identity are somehow so connected as to seem inherent, continue to haunt contemporary society in ways that actually divide nations and destroy democracy. One reason this is happening here and now is the amnesiac history we teach. The ugly side of empire is too often left out of education, from kindergarten through college. This is not a matter of socioeconomic privilege or access to the best schools. Students across the US, regardless of their background, may graduate from college without ever learning about inconvenient histories. Yet, national forgetting is powerful. It enables ideology like racial supremacy to not only exist, but evolve.

How would one think differently of the United States if we were to think of it not as a nation built by immigrants — a national myth — but rather as a nation built on slavery and the removal of Indigenous people from their land?

Recently, while teaching a course on political philosophy, I was shocked to learn that the majority of my college students did not know about the Trail of Tears. In turn, they were also disappointed that their high school history curricula “failed them once again,” as one student put it. A death march mandated by US President Andrew Jackson who has, until recent debates, sat comfortably as the face of the twenty-dollar bill, the Trail of Tears forced thousands of people belonging to different Native American sovereign nations, including the Cherokees, Chocktaws and Seminoles to march 800 miles by foot from Georgia to Oklahoma during the harshest of winters. Many young children and elderly people did not survive the march.

Likewise, the history of slavery has never been recognized as a crime against humanity. The failure of Reconstruction exposes case after case of state violation of the equal rights clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Too often, the history of abolition replaces the history of slavery. And rarely do we discuss how racial regimes functioned during slavery as a way to justify racial hierarchies in order to sustain the forms of labor that were necessary for the plantation economy.

Yet, it is not enough to know about these histories as History, as something that has ended. We have to also recognize how the legacy of these histories constructed a hierarchical idea of race, a legacy that we have inherited, and which continues to operate in the present in ways that co-constitute racial identity and national identity. It is not enough to know statistics about the worldwide scale of slavery and colonialism, but we have to directly address their ongoing human cost: violence as racial terrorism.

Recognizing our national amnesia would be the first step towards reckoning with the plural histories of survival, of coming out of enslavement and rebuilding after cataclysmic violence. We have to implement and teach curricula at all levels, and create related policy that directly address current race relations within the context of the historical and ideological constructions of race. Because histories of racial violence are not over. And we need our classrooms and our culture — and not just Jesse Williams — to tell that truth.

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