“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” — James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt” (Ebony, 1965)

I took a short ride recently through my old neighborhood, on 14th Street just north of Burleigh. The familiar sights revived old memories, and reminded me of just how much I loved growing up in a part of Milwaukee. A treasured part of my youth, it is a place that people derisively dismissed as “the ghetto” then, and today call “the hood.”

That old neighborhood is crumbling. The houses are in disrepair in many respects, because landlords spend very little time and effort keeping their “properties” in good condition. It is probably not where landlords live, it is where they make money off of people poorer than themselves.

I feel deeply for the children who have to see the things that make them feel like life does not offer them a bright future. I did not see those things as a child, like trash, boarded-up homes, or homeless people begging for a little change.

“… by the time the Negro child has had, effectively, almost all the doors of opportunity slammed in his face, and there are very few things he can do about it. He can more or less accept it with an absolutely inarticulate and dangerous rage inside, all the more dangerous because it is never expressed.” – James Baldwin “The Negro Child, His Self-Image” (1963)

Black people were doing pretty well overall in Milwaukee during my formative years. There were plenty of good jobs in manufacturing and working for the government. Most of those quality employment opportunities have disappeared for many people in my community. For far too many of its residents, Milwaukee limits opportunities for “lifting yourself up by the bootstraps.” To live in a place that has been disinvested in is to see each day that you are not valued.

I hear we are facing a Culture War. I do not see it as a conflict over culture. Instead, what I perceive is a war between telling the truth or perpetuating lies – lies that have been so institutionally embedded that they seem like the truth.

People are trying very hard to trick us into ignoring the real world we see. It is called gaslighting. Our children deserve better. They can handle the truth. When I was giving tours many years ago at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, we had very large reproductions of lynching images as part of an exhibit.

I noticed that adults and children reacted differently to those brutal images. Adults, regardless of race, generally looked at the lynching pictures very quickly, diverting their gaze downward, in an attempt to not absorb the sadistic images that the mob members kept as family heirlooms.

Children, on the other hand, looked closely at the images and asked probing questions. They were curious to learn what was going on when people could be murdered by mobs of sometimes thousands. I remember those children and their curiosity today when I hear people say we should avoid teaching so-called “divisive concepts,” a euphemism for “the truth.”

America, like every other nation that has ever existed, has things in our history to be proud of and things to be ashamed of.

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it …” – James Baldwin, “The Negro Child, His Self-Image” (1963)

How do we reconcile the current realities, where people prefer to bury knowledge with self-delusion? I say we take a courageous stand and teach the truth. Some people will always be uncomfortable about the ugly parts of American history. So be it.

I refuse to dishonor my ancestors by not telling their truths. All of us, adults and children alike, deserve to learn what really happened in the past and not manufactured myths. Our cultural lies have been told for so long that they have created a fake reality in the minds of far too many Americans.

I will not participate in this charade. I want to hear everyone’s truth about their lived experiences. I may not like some of what I hear, but who am I to tell you that what you have experienced was not real to you?

America can still gain some amount of redemption from its ugly past by telling the truth about it.

“Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.” – Frederick Douglas, “The Lessons of the Hour” (1894)

© Photo

John H. White and Dick Swanson (via The U.S. National Archives)