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Black History, No More?

By Pamela Reed

pamela-reed08Now that Barack Obama is President of the United States, why don’t we just pretend that America wasn’t built on slaveholding?

If the spate of recent “post-racial” articles suggesting that we need no longer commemorate the African American struggle for freedom and equality in this country is any indication, this seems to be where we’re heading.

This is a classic case of the phenomenon called selective history/memory, or as some have termed it, historical amnesia.

We’ve been bombarded with calls to end affirmative action and claims of reverse racism. Indeed, it seems like just yesterday I was writing in defense of Black History Month, which is now deemed racist, counterproductive, and/or irrelevant by some prominent African Americans, as did Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist (and former editorial page editor) Cynthia Tucker in a commentary earlier this year.

Most recently, Corey Dade’s Wall Street Journal article “Civil-Rights Gains Test New Memorials’ Relevance,” poses the following curious question: “Does the America of 2009, led by an African-American president, need any more museums or monuments to the struggle for civil rights?”

Dade’s piece details the fundraising hurdles confronting the organizers of the proposed Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta. According to Doug Shipman, would-be executive director of the future CCHR, primary among them is the question that is apparently uppermost in the minds of some potential donors: “Why does it [the Civil Rights Movement] matter today?”

Perhaps this explains why, presently, public and private pledges total less than half of the $125 million needed for the completion of the historic 100,000-square-foot museum, scheduled to open its doors in 2011.

Hopefully, this problem will not carry-over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is moving toward its groundbreaking, and is tentatively set to open on the National Mall in 2015.

In an effort to broaden the pool of contributors, CCHR organizers have had to rethink their original vision of a monument dedicated solely to the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., housed in the city of his birth–and widely considered the seat of the movement.

As it were, there are still many who are in denial about the ugliness of America’s past. This segment of the population doesn’t want to even hearabout lynchings, cross-burnings, or the Ku Klux Klan, let alone see exhibits about them.

Says Lonnie King, a member of the CCHR planning committee (but not the MLK family): “There are people who wanted to turn it into a museum that will glorify a lot of things other than civil rights.” Consequently, although the 10,000-piece collection of King papers will be the centerpiece, only one-third of the facility will focus on King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950′s and 60′s.

Another third of the building will be devoted to early American history, particularly the enslavement period and the systemic discrimination that followed in the Jim Crow era. The remaining tierce will highlight the “modern era” of human rights struggles of other American groups since the 1970′s: primarily, women, Hispanics, and gays, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people.

This is a recurring theme in the African American saga.

Even the advisory council of the NMAAHC had to fight for its placement on the National Mall, which was built by enslaved Africans. The New York Times reports that BET founder Bob Johnson threatened to resign from the council if the long-awaited museum had not been built on the Mall. “To have relegated this museum to another site,” he said, “when people are looking to it to answer everything from the need for an apology for slavery to reparations, would have been the ultimate dismissal.”

Especially since at no time since the abolition of the “peculiar institution” of American enslavement has there been any program or initiative intended for the sole purpose of attempting to make whole the formerly enslaved–and their descendants.

Not one.

Not the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed during Reconstruction, and charged with rebuilding the lives of the newly “freed”–and the war-torn south, and poor Whites, andthe former enslavers who, by the way, were compensated for their lost “property.” In stark contrast, the Black Freedmen (and women and children) were–by and large–given nothing but the clothes on their backs…and a hard way to go.

Not affirmative action, which is routinely pointed to as a form of reparations for African Americans for centuries of enslavement. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Granted, because of affirmative action, many African Americans have made tremendous strides in the areas of business, education, government, journalism, etc.

But, let’s be clear. It is White women, as quiet as it’s kept, who have reaped the lion’s share of affirmative action benefits. And, I hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, as they outnumber all other “minorities.” I’m just saying…let’s keep it real.

And, without question, women have suffered–and continue to suffer–grave injustices in this country, but that is a separate issue from that of the African American. By the same token, Hispanics have also been–and continue to be–treated as second-class citizens in America. The same is true for the GLBT community.

But here’s the problem. There is this constant effort to lump the Black American story under the “civil rights” or “human rights” umbrella. Moreover, the tendency to dismiss the singular experience in this country that is the African Americans’, like yesterday’s news, is downright disrespectful.

It’s like there is an expiration date or statute of limitations on Black history, after which it will be deemed irrelevant–or dead, even.

Frankly, I find insulting the suggestion that just because the American people have elected an African-American president, the past 400 years of American hegemony are no longer relevant.

This is simply not acceptable. Nor is it credible. It would be just as ludicrous to suggest that we should one day cease telling the story of the Trail of Tears, or other chapters of the near annihilation of the Native American peoples because one Native American crossed a certain threshold previously reserved for White Americans.

I mean, there’s a reason why we study past events, and why history is one of the oldest and most venerated of the disciplines of the academy. As Malcolm X observed in 1964, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.”

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is faced with the admittedly awesome task of bringing the CCHR to fruition, reasons thus. “If this center only looks backward it won’t be successful.”

While, I agree that we must be forward-thinking and embrace and promote racial and intercultural harmony, I believe that, in the long-run, we will do more harm than good to race relations by attempting to water down –or bury–the past.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic, and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

A Time for Change? President Obama on Indian Country and Native Nations

jkauanuiBy J. Kehaulani Kauanui

U.S. President Barack Obama has been heralded for taking more actions in the first 30 days of his administration than some presidents have done in their entire service as president. In his first few days in office, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda to direct the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, reduce the secrecy given to presidential records, order the closing of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, change procedures to promote disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, and reverse President Bush’s ban on federal funding to foreign establishments that allow abortions. By February, he signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package, declared combat operations will end in Iraq within 18 months, and lifted of restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell studies.

However, on Feb. 6, 2009, Obama’s administration also registered its retrograde position on a significant Indian preference case, despite promises to include more Native Americans in the federal government. As reported on Indianz.com, the Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal of a decision that backed a broad Indian preference policy at the Department of the Interior. The Obama administration’s appeal is in line with both the Reagan administration and the Bush administration, which had restricted the Indian preference policy at the U.S. Department of the Interior. This meant that American Indians and Alaska Natives were not given first consideration for several hundred jobs under the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs or within the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. Under the restrictive policy, according to court documents, only 17 out of 550 positions at the agency were covered by Indian preference. In March 2008, Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan rejected the limited views of these past administrations and determined that Indian preference applies to all posts that “directly and primarily” relate to Indian programs. The judge’s final ruling from December 2008 is what the new administration said it will appeal.

The principle of Indian preference did not emerge as an affirmative action policy to address historical exclusions based on race; instead, it is grounded in the Indian Reorganization Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1934. Section 12 states that qualified Indian employees will be given preference for positions at the “Indian Office, in the administration of functions or services affecting any Indian tribe.” Indian preferences were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 (1974), a legal case about the constitutionality of hiring preferences given to Indians within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the court, the purpose of the preference is to give “Indians a greater participation in their own self-government; to further the government’s trust obligation toward the Indian tribes; and to reduce the negative effect of having non-Indians administer matters that affect Indian tribal life.”

Many people throughout Indian Country who worked on Obama’s campaign understandably feel betrayed. How can the president reconcile his stated commitment to a nation-to-nation relationship when his administration seems bent on appealing the ruling on Indian preferences? It seems Obama’s administration is sending a signal that it does not trust Native people to manage their own affairs.

The case of Eloise Cobell speaks too well to the legacy of the mismanagement of Indian affairs. She is the lead plaintiff in a case with approximately 500,000 other Indian plaintiffs in the long-running Indian trust mismanagement suit against the Department of the Interior.  Cobell recently expressed her disappointment with the Obama administration, as reported by Rob Capriccioso in Indian Country Today earlier this week. She is dismayed by the approach to the case taken by Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior. In the case, which was first filed in 1996, the plaintiffs alleged mismanagement of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior for Indian trustees since 1887. The case has gone through numerous appeals and will be heard before a Washington, D.C., circuit appellate court May 11, 2009. As Capriccioso reported, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in August that Indian account holders deserved $455.6 million for 121 years of trust mismanagement — a figure less than the total amount spent by Congress and the federal government over the past decades trying to fix the trust management system.

Despite Cobell’s calls for a settlement, neither Salazar, nor anyone else from the Obama administration has contacted her. No wonder she is increasingly skeptical of the promise of “change” for Indian country the Obama administration promised. And yet, during his campaign Obama declared, “We’re going to end nearly a century of mismanagement of the Indian trusts. We’re going to work together to settle unresolved cases, figure out how the trusts ought to operate and make sure that they’re being managed responsibly – today, tomorrow and always.” He delivered this message to the National Congress of American Indians in October 2008 by video teleconference, and the transcript was later published as an opinion piece in Indian Country Today.

Obama committed himself to “a full partnership” with Native nations. He even went so far as to pronounce, “Indian nations have never asked much of the United States – only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made to their forebears. So let me be absolutely clear – I believe treaty commitments are paramount law, and I will fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.”

Let us hold Obama to his promise. Although Obama has selected several Native individuals for key posts in his administration, they do not come close to “a full partnership,” and are undercut by his administration’s other actions with regard to Indian preferences and the long history of trust abuses by the U.S. government as they have manifest through the Interior and every other governmental institution. We simply must assert our political will to ensure that “change” becomes more than mere political rhetoric.

Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University. She is the producer and host of a public affairs radio program, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,”on WESU, Middletown, Conn., which is syndicated on several Pacifica affiliate-stations and and archived online.   She is the author of, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity, (Duke University Press, 2008). Kauanui serves on the Advisory Board for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.