“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”
James Baldwin wrote those words in a 1963 essay entitled “A Talk to Teachers.” Were he still alive, he could say nearly the exact same things today. “The society in which we live is desperately menaced… from within.” We are seeing more and more signs of this menacing every day.
Despite this, some people would have us believe that everything is perfectly okay if we ignore certain people. They claim that the truths of people of color are a falsehood and that they are simply playing the race card or the victimhood card. How many are willing to confront these lies? How many are willing to “go for broke” as Baldwin said? How many “woke” people are still willing to fight the good fight?
I am increasingly bothered by people who tell me certain things about this country that they believe are “true.” When I hear people claim that America is not a racist nation, I wonder how they could possibly expect me to agree with them.
I understand that people have different perspectives, different lived experiences and different ways of seeing the world around them. That makes perfect sense. However, when people look at American history and draw a conclusion that the nation — which enslaved my ancestors for who knows how long — somehow was not practicing racism at the time, I’m perplexed and quite honestly peeved as well.
How dare you try to convince me that what I see is a mirage. How dare you try to get me to agree with you, which in my view would be an affront and slap in the face to my ancestors. I know that a lot of people from my community love America with all of their heart and soul. I understand why they do. That does not mean I have to agree with them.
My perspective is based on my decades of studying this nation and its history. My perspective is not based on a moment in time. My perspective is not solely based on my lived experiences. My perspective is based on the collective experiences of millions of people that have endured that very peculiar form of racism that America is responsible for.
I have spent countless hours reading detailed accounts of American stories which paint a very ugly picture of this country. These are not the stories I was taught in school. Growing up in segregated, small town Mississippi, I was told, actually forced, to say the pledge of allegiance. I had to pledge allegiance to a flag which flew over a country that allowed the state I lived in to fight the mandates of the Brown v. Board decision for a decade and a half and keep Black children in decrepit segregated schools.
Imagine growing up in a place where your parents were forced to go to so-called “Negro” schools. Imagine knowing that one swimming pool in town was for us, and the other was for White people. Imagine growing up in a town that still has separate high school proms for Black and White children. Imagine being told that none of this is based on racism.
Those who want me to believe that these things are not proof of the history of racism in this country must think I’m a fool. I can guarantee you that I am not. I will not be tricked into accepting lies as truth.
Just because someone on social media or YouTube has told you that the coronavirus is a hoax and that vaccines are embedded with tracking devices, that the 2020 election was stolen and that Ivermecten, a horse worm medication, or hydroxychloroquine is a treatment for COVID does not mean I have to believe those things. My mind works differently than that of many. I can’t just accept things because a lot of other people do. If it does not make sense and is not supported by evidence I can’t simply be convinced that something is true.
As I began to trace my family history many years ago, I was confronted with the reality that there were very specific limits to how far back I could go. I discovered that the decennial census of the United States deemed enslaved Black people to be unworthy of having their names enumerated in the records. They were counted instead on slave schedules. The only info about them was age, gender and race. No names other than that of their so-called “master” were included.
This erasure of names made these millions of people invisible. It meant that prior to the 1870 census, it was nearly impossible to know who and where my ancestors were. You can’t tell me this was not racism.
When I look back on the stories I heard growing up, and still hear about how horrible White people treated my family, I cannot deny the existence of racism in their lives. It is like an infection in their psyches and souls. They can’t extricate themselves from those memories and experiences. They can’t simply heal themselves from that trauma. Yet, people want me to ignore all of that and pretend racism is a myth.
White elected officials in Madison recently passed Assembly Bill 411, which makes it illegal for teachers and students to be exposed to these stories. I know the bill will be vetoed by Governor Evers, but what happens if he is succeeded by a person who agrees with these people? Will the bill come back and become the law of this state that I have on multiple times called Wississippi?
Let me explain to you why the voices I hear that claim these stories of American experience are so irritating to me. Somehow people who claim to love the Constitution and their “rights,” want to stifle the rights of people who want to learn the unvarnished truth of America, including the rampant racism that is so well documented.
As people argue back and forth about critical race theory, they miss the point that this is simply stifling free speech. These people who claim White children will feel guilty learning the truth about their country are crazy enough to believe that people who study American history will agree with them.
They are using scare tactics and bullying to get their way. They have convinced a great many White people, and some people of color as well, that America would be better off if it let the past stay in the past. At the same time they constantly talk about the glorious past, while simultaneously ignoring the parts they deem divisive.
This is the epitome of hypocrisy. You want to erase the part of American history that you deem unworthy of learning. How dare you have the gall to tell me what is worthy of my learning. How dare you tell parents of color that their children should be lied to in school about American history.
Those in these small communities around the state of Wisconsin, and other states that are pursuing this agenda, should be ashamed of their cowardice. You deny the truth to your peril. The past can’t simply be erased this easily. You can bully school boards and teachers but that will not make the past magically disappear.
As the old saying goes, the cow is out of the barn. You cannot put the genie back into the bottle. America is what it is because people made conscious deliberate choices. Their are no accidents that made racism happen.
As those thirteen colonies were growing from the time of the Mayflower through the years of the American Revolution and war with King George, leaders in those colonies were creating a slaveocracy. Each colony adopted laws making the enslavement of Africans a part of their legacy. Although most of us never learned in school about the slavery in the north, does not mean that it did not happen.
The audacity to claim America was not being racist when they passed these laws, and created a constitution which supported these state laws, is the arrogance of racist thinkers. You cannot deny slavery. This nation lost hundreds of thousands in a war that was about slavery. And in the end the losers, the Confederate traitors, were allowed back into the Union with little to no pain.
As I watched the events and ensuing months of inactivity related to those who stormed the Capitol on January 6, I’m reminded of how Lincoln’s successor, along with Congress let the Confederates off with a slap on the wrist. In December 1863, Lincoln began to plan for the reunification of those states that seceded. His three part plan known as the Ten Percent Plan, detailed how those states would come back to the Union.
The plan offered a general pardon to almost all of those who fought a bloody war of secession. The exceptions would be high ranking Confederate leaders. Lincoln asked that only ten percent of the 1860 voting population (all white men of course), make a binding oath of allegiance to the United States of America and agree to emancipate the Africans they held in captivity. Once they took the oath, their state would then draw up new constitutions and be readmitted to the Union.
Lincoln hoped the leniency of the plan, giving 90 percent of these men an out, would be enough to convince them to rejoin the Union. Members of Congress who became known as the Radical Republicans, scoffed at this leniency by Lincoln. They felt harsh punishment would teach a lesson to the Confederates and make further attempts at succession never happen again. They wanted harsh punishment to be parallel to protection of the Africans in the midst of the breakaway states.
The Wade-Davis Bill, written by Ohio senator Benjamin Wade and Maryland representative Henry Winter Davis was a rebuttal to Lincoln’s plan. The bill required a majority of men in the South to take a binding, oath known as the Ironclad Oath of allegiance where they would swear that they never had supported the Confederacy and would never wage war against the country again. If men refused this, they would be barred for life from serving in political office. Congress passed the bill and Lincoln quickly made it known that he would not sign it into law. He felt the South would refuse those terms and prolong the reunification of the country.
On April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Lincoln. What many don’t know about the assassination is that it was part of a massive conspiracy to get rid of leaders of the country and invigorate the Confederate cause. Secretary of State William Seward was stabbed by Booth’s co-conspirators the same night Lincoln was shot. A man designated to kill Vice president Andrew Johnson changed his mind and refused to do so. After Booth was shot and killed by Union troops on April 26, eight of his comrades were tried for their actions. The military tribunal ordered four of them to be hanged.
As a result of escaping assassination himself, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson followed in Lincoln’s footsteps, offering leniency to the states that seceded. Johnson’s May 29,1865 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, offered terms the South was amenable to. It provided “amnesty and pardon” to traitorous Southerners while returning all of their property except the Africans they had held in bondage. Instead of requiring allegiance to the United States, they only had to affirm support for the Constitution. The only exceptions to this were Confederate political leaders, high-ranking military leaders and men possessing property in excess of $20,000. These men could only escape this by asking for a pardon from the President.
“I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do proclaim and declare that I hereby grant to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, amnesty and pardon, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves and except in cases where legal proceedings under the laws of the United States providing for the confiscation of property of persons engaged in rebellion have been instituted; but upon the condition, nevertheless, that every such person shall take and subscribe the following oath (or affirmation) and thenceforward keep and maintain said oath inviolate, and which oath shall be registered for permanent preservation and shall be of the tenor and effect following, to wit:
I, do solemnly swear (or affirm), in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God.
By early 1866 Johnson had accepted the new constitutions of all of the Confederate states and allowed them back into the union. Additionally, he allowed a number of former Confederates, including their Vice President Alexander Stephens, to retake their seats in Congress. Johnson would battle the Radical Republicans over this issue for a number of years.
Just a month before Johnson declared in December of 1865 that the Union was restored, the former Confederate states began drafting laws known as Black Codes. These laws denied Blacks the right to purchase or rent land, own guns, meet together after the sun set, or marry White people. There were many other things that became against the law if done by Black people. The laws also gave Whites the right as mere citizens to arrest Blacks for vagrancy, idleness, “insulting gestures” and things they deemed to be “malicious mischief.” Basically these Black Codes criminalized Black behavior, because most of these laws were not applied to Whites.
Since the Thirteenth Amendment allowed slavery to continue “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” a new system of slavery, known as the convict lease system would be developed an continue to exist until at least the 1930s. This “slavery by another name” is never taught in our history classes. Those who want me to agree that teaching of this is divisive will never convince me to agree with them.
The thirteen colonies creating slavery, the Constitution allowing it to continue, President Johnson refusing to punish the Confederate traitors harshly, the storming of the U.S. Capitol, the laws in state after state to make it harder for Blacks to vote, and the attempts to erase true history from our classrooms, are all part of the the way racism continues to maintain its deadly grip on America.
This is not just history for me that they want to erase. They want to erase my family’s experiences. They want to pretend that my family was never the victims of American racism. This is what they want millions of us to forget. They somehow think that we will ignore our lived experiences and the pain and trauma suffered by our ancestors, just so they can be comfortable living with the lies they prefer.
That is the bottom line in all of this back and forth about what we will allow to be taught. Erasing the ugly parts of American history simply compels us to accept lies because some people are uncomfortable with the truth. I will not sit by and allow them to win. Those who do sit idly by, will live with the legacy of cheating their children out of learning the truth in our schools and adults in multiple places. Will this be your legacy?
“Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white… To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” – James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”