By Pamela Reed
Now 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 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.