The Cult of White History
I was born in February the year after President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month. My mother’s year of birth is just 90 years--a perhaps long but certainly achievable human life expectancy--after the abolition of slavery, and nine years before the Human Rights Act of 1964.
Maybe I can’t really claim to be young any more, but I haven’t even found my first gray hair yet, and my mother is barely retirement age.
This means that segregation wasn’t that long ago. The Civil War wasn’t long ago. The horrors of slavery were not long ago.
Portion of an Aetna Policy Document showing enslaved persons insured as property. California Department of Insurance
This is the very recent history of a very young country. As such, its lessons might be expected to serve as the foundation of our public discourse, shaping our identity as Americans, informing our political philosophy, creating an equal and fair socio-economic landscape. But somehow, the vast majority of American conversation and decision-making take place far outside of this context.
One month out of the year, we celebrate Black History..
White people aren’t required to learn anything new during February, or to internalize anything at all in order to feel that we’ve satisfied our obligation. All we need to do to is to revisit a few approved stories about black Americans, stories carefully crafted to not disrupt the approved American narrative in any significant or lasting way, if at all.
As March 1st rolls around, we’ll go back to a comfortable world where white is the default color. We’ll dream the American dream promised by the white founding fathers. In our public squares we will see ourselves and the limitless potential that is our birthright reflected back from the statues of white historical figures. We’ll exchange money engraved with pictures of dignified, authoritative white men. In Church, we will beg for Divine Providence at the feet of a white God.
Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman will fade from our consciousness and we return to our great white men of America; men like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, and Henry Ford. Our universal indoctrination and inoculation against the truth of our country’s true origins has made that automatic.
Black History is far, far more than the rough 1/12 of the American story that a dedicated month might suggest. A study of unredacted American history reveals that is is in fact impossible to divorce any aspect of America’s birth and growth from black history. American industry, agriculture, banking, and even our state boundaries were shaped by matters surrounding the enslaved labor on which early capitalists depended for their success. This is how the foundation of the economic and political landscape we know today was laid.
We cannot ignore the mighty river that is black history as it roars through the true story of America. I found that river running through my own life, from my early childhood on the site of His Lordship’s Kindness Plantation, my current home at what was Ridgley’s Forges forced labor complex, and my office on the site of John O’Donnell’s Canton Plantation.
Where does the mighty river of black history run through your life? Find it, and follow where it leads, all throughout the year--the journey begins with the single step of opening ourselves to this new awareness. It is time to disavow this cult and its core doctrine that American history is white, and its white heroes ethically self made.