We learn history badly in this nation, if we learn it at all. It is well erased, well whitewashed, displaced from the visual landscape and sociopolitical scrutiny, or frozen into mythic stories of the founding fathers’ wisdom unfolding over the decades into increasing largesse in the forms of women getting the vote or blacks gaining civil rights. In this dream there is equal opportunity, upward mobility, blind justice, melting pots of gold.
There is, yesterday and many days past, no indictment of profound injustice.
Because a place without memory, a place that willfully masks the complexities of the intertwining legacies of freedom and domination, is a space of nightmares. It is a place doomed not only to forget and repeat but also to evolve increasingly barbaric and murderous forms of social control that benefit from this collective amnesia.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith released his film The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman). Its most appalling scenes, like the one pictured here, are often excised from the movie when it’s publicly shown — yet another erasure of sorts. Because in the film’s full version, it too clearly grasps the heart of the dominant US origin story: white racist Christian males (embodied by the KKK) birthing a great nation by killing off blacks.
This film may be fictional, but its theme builds on too much historical reality, too much of the factual origin story and continuing legacy of what grounded this place. The key to unlocking the truth of the intertwining legacies of freedom and domination in terms of US history resides in one simple word: racism.
It’s been a racism directed toward many different groups seen as, always or at various times, people of color on this continent, whether already resident here before colonization or immigrating to these shores later. But the “birth of the nation” has been especially shaped by racism against blacks, perpetrated by an ideology of white supremacy.
There is no way to make sense of the intertwining legacies of freedom and domination in the United States, much less any way to make it visible, without tying it to the logic of institutionalized racism against blacks in particular from the beginning. This beginning includes the moment, way back in the 1660s, when two black slaves were brought by the Dutch to the tip of what is now Manhattan in the initial acts of colonization. Such bondage stretched far beyond this New Amsterdam settlement, systemically cultivated into many forms of racialized brutality: the growing slave trade and slave-plantation system, lynchings, the abuse and misuse of black bodies within wagework settings and labor unions, Jim Crow, redlining, the prison-industrial complex, targeted repression and disproportionate police force used on blacks, and so much in between and ongoing.
That Mike Brown and so many other young black men, and black women and black kids and blacks of all ages, are killed by police (and others) for no other reason than being black is not some mistake of justice. It is not one grand jury gone wrong, or something that is an aberration or due to a few “bad apples.” Nor it is outside history.
If there’s any doubt that this nation was and still is grounded on the bones of black people in particular, last night’s pronouncement in Ferguson of the nonindictment of the legacies of US racism spoke loud and clear. And the further militarism to counter justifiable rage, pain, and resistance against unjustifiable institutionalized racism and white supremacy isn’t surprising. It’s abhorrent.
Yet it’s also, precisely, our history of these United States.
We can only make a break with history, compassionately birthing new forms of freedom that increasingly lessen all forms of domination, if we see US history’s intimate connection to the murderous logic of today’s United States.
Love, rage, and solidarity with the people of Ferguson.