By Wim Laven
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Nothing fills me with a greater awe and sense of purpose than this ideal. It is the essence of my life’s work in teaching peace and justice. As an educator I believe that all of humanity is improved in recognizing equality in basic human rights and delivering on promises of equal opportunity. Unfortunately, however, this purpose doesn’t generally register as patriotism; my country has failed to take equality seriously. Instead we promote mythology, an ongoing ‘white lie’—the farce—which asserts an America created as a model for humankind by wise and justice-minded Founding Fathers.
Early challenges to that myth by eloquent victims of the American reality include one from July 5, 1852, when former slave Frederick Douglass addressed the nation with his question, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” at an Independence Day celebration:
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.
Can we imagine that in 2020 minorities and persons of color are still asking for access to the American Dream, but also for permission to live? The nightmare of injustice is structural, systematic, intentional, and persistent, but we’re told—decade after decade—that it is necessary to be patient and it is only a few bad apples.
We never acknowledge that the bad apples, just like the injustice, are produced in every city on every day.
The descendants of slaves carry the genetics raped into their family trees. Our streets are filled with signs honoring the rapists’ names. The farce says these ignoble criminals should be celebrated.
We do not teach that George Washington’s dentures were made from human teeth or ivory, tell the ‘white lie’ that they are made out of wood instead of admitting there is a good chance they were purchased at cut-rate prices from slaves or, in the very best case, from desperately poor people.
We do not teach that while Benjamin Franklin eventually saw the moral need to abolish slavery, the equality pronounced in declaring independence did not extend to the slaves he owned until 1781. The White House was built with slave labor. Thomas Jefferson “fathered” children with Sally Hemings. How does a 16-year-old slave end up pregnant by her “owner?”
This social malady is present in the jokes about nooses and the insistence of those who tell them. Forget that there have been thousands of lynching’s and that the racialized terror continues to traumatize communities of color. This buffoonery insists that it is not racist to joke, even when the jokes are about hate crimes. Some are inspired to mock the murder of George Floyd, posting photos of themselves kneeling on each other’s necks to mimic the murder of George Floyd, or to make jokes about not being able to breathe…
The problems are not isolated. Messages of animus come from everywhere, the White House with its ongoing bigotry has no problem making clear that people of color should go back to “where they came from” regardless of whether or not they were born in the US. Police departments have used violent militaristic responses to peaceful Black Lives Matter gatherings, with some officers declaring they are ready for a civil war; “We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them f—— n——.”
Sanctioning the history of the United States of America is always challenging. Sanction, contranym (a word with two different and contradictory meanings), is understood as both a threatened penalty and also as approval. Elaborate displays of patriotism tend toward the later when progress demands the former. I am calling for negative sanctions on teaching American history from the point of view of white male propertied slaveowners. I would positively sanction teaching American history by equally honoring all the voices from all groups.
A gritty reality: A bunch of wealthy white slave owning capitalists got tired of paying taxes. They wrote a Constitution and created an Electoral College to protect the slave trade. It is time that we started telling the truth about the past and were honest about the present. A racist bully lost the popular vote by 3 million votes but occupies the office of the President because of an institution designed to perpetuate inequality. We no longer have signs that say “colored”, but we see the same outcomes in everything from life expectancy and the lethality of the coronavirus to wealth and incarcerations disparities. We have never atoned or made reparations for this past; it is time to take equality seriously.