If you are American, particularly if you are a white American, male, Christian (especially if you are Protestant), and most definitely if you are rich; basically, if you have any of the markers in our society of possessing what is called privilege (and certainly there are others–if you are straight, thin, attractive, able-bodied, you too have privilege in our society), you should take the time to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
For me, it is something that I take the time to read and reread every few years, but I truly think every American should read it at least once, because it is eye-opening and instructive, in a way that very little of the history you learned in school was, particularly on the matter of how this country was actually built. There is a lot I considered saying here…in defense of my own privilege, in apology of it, in defense of my own lack of privilege, in apology of it… The matters of race, in particular, are difficult to address, and I cannot pretend to have the ability to be able to do them justice. But I can try to speak with some accuracy and integrity and honesty about my feelings on the problem of our historical ignorance and denialism, and the manner in which I think, I hope, we can begin to recognize both.
History is the memory of states,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leavers of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies… But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation–a world not restored but disintegrated.
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nation are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of a thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as sheen by the Cherokees, of the Civil Was as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican War as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women of the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the post war American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
~Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Particularly if you are white, male, Christian (especially if you are Protestant), and most definitely if you are rich, you are taking part (wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, fairly or unfairly) in a system responsible for a both genocide and the total subjugation of peoples on the basis of race, religion, and class. This is true whether you are from the United States, or (as I have learned over the years from my international friends) if you are in Australia or Canada–pretty much anywhere that Europeans saw fit to make a profit on the backs of native peoples. Since I am from the US, I’m going to leave the sin of those nations to the privileged peoples of those countries to explore, and focus on the sins of this nation, to which we are all complicit in perpetuating to one group or another.
Among those most wronged in the history of this nation are its original, Native inhabitants, the Africans brought to its shores in chains, and the descendants of both. To be sure (only because someone is sure to comment upon it defensively), the privileged have wronged other people as well–Catholics and Baptists in the colony of Virginia, factory and mine workers during the 1930’s, migrant workers in the West, women of all colors (though white women such as myself share less of the burden there), the veterans from a number of wars–from Black soldiers in the Union army to the Bonus Army to the veterans of Vietnam, families in Japanese Americans internment camps, immigrants from every corner of the world, Muslims, particularly after 9/11…and this is in no way a comprehensive list. But the scale of these wrongs is nowhere close to that of what has been done by white Americans to Native Americans and Black Americans.
History classes have traditionally ignored this aspect of our nation’s history; if you are lucky enough to take an AP or honors class in high school with a good teacher or a university history class from a professor that thinks of a general, introductory history class as more than a collection of dates, you might learn a little bit more than the average citizen. But by and large, Americans are ignorant about the realities of their own history, and loathe to remedy that situation.
It is astounding to me that we, as a nation, criticize the Japanese for their failure to address the most heinous aspects of their recent Imperial history–the rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the forced prostitution of comfort women, and the testing of chemical and biological weapons on civilian populations while Columbus Day is a national holiday and the nation’s capitol’s football team is named after a derogatory term used to other the indigenous people of this continent, that the majority still seeks ways to keep minorities from voting (a right that they died for at the hands of mobs of that majority) and where a flag that symbolized open rebellion over the right to own people and the terrorization of Black Americans is a bumper sticker for regional pride and “sticking to the man” (ironic, when the people perpetuating this falsehood are, in fact “the man”).
And so, as we get ready to celebrate the great American myth (on my more optimistic days I like to think of it as our founding goal)–that this country was founded on the principle of freedom from tyranny, I think it is proper that we take a moment to think about men and women that were crushed by that freedom, and that still struggle under the weight of its memory. Because this nation, this quilt of communities, stitched together by blood and struggle, will never be free until we have reconciled the simple fact that privilege is paid for in human coin.
As we enjoy our barbecues, take a moment to remember the millions of men and women and children that were brutally terrorized in conquest to build the cities and towns in which we live (and the millions more killed by the diseases our ancestors and our predecessors spread to them, and the hundreds of thousands more displaced from their traditional homelands). Take a moment to remember the millions of men and women and children that died at sea, crammed into the dank, dark hulls of ships, snatched from their homes for the profit of greedy men, under the guise of religious salvation. Take a moment to remember that many of the very authors of the Declaration of Independence, so focused in the injustice of taxation without representation ignored the injustice of their contrived white superiority.
As we enjoy our fireworks, take a moment to remember the families and cultures torn asunder by those in power–the Native American children sent to white schools meant to “civilize” them and the Black parents and children sold as chattel to keep them in their place. Take a moment to remember the men and women beaten and killed for daring to live free. Take a moment to remember that the President of the United States of America ignored both Congress and the Supreme Court to send an entire nation of peoples on a march that rivals the Bataan Death March. Take a moment to remember that even after the end of slavery that Black Americans were terrorized in their homes, their churches, and their communities for daring to vote, to ride a bus, to use a lunch counter. Take a moment to remember travesties so numerous that I cannot possibly recount them all in one blog post–volumes have been written to document them.
Privilege comes in many guises, from race, religion, economic status, gender, sexual identity, and level of education to regionalism, ethnicity, language, appearance, physical ability, neurodiversity, and beyond. For most of this nation’s history, not being these things–whiteness, Christianness, maleness, straightness, etc, were seen as inferior, as a weakness, and the people that had them were exploited and oppressed. This tendency to create and subjugate people for their differences has been a long tradition in human history–this is not an excuse for the behavior of our forefathers, but rather a statement of fact. But despite this tendency, or perhaps because of it, because of those that struggle against it, there is something else that is true. To add a thought to a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King and Theodore Parker, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it surely bends towards justice…and with justice, so follows freedom.
Let us endeavor to ensure that all of us can partake of that freedom, not just some of us. It is the least that we can offer after five centuries of human sacrifice upon the altar of American nation-building.
What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
~Frank James, in a censored speech, 1970, the entirety of which should be read and can be found here
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, “I have a dream” speech, 1963, the entirety of which (as well as video) of which should be watched and read here