Nobody asked me but I think Ta Nehisi Coates’ piece in the June issue of The Atlantic should be required reading for every American.
I readily admit that it took me nearly a month to finish it. That wasn’t because I have to sound out each word. Rather, I’d get so angry I’d have to put it down and say all the short, crisp words I know. When other Americans’ blood returns to simmer, they should be ready to start Randall Robinson’s “The Debt.”
The exercise brought something home to me in stark relief. Most Americans, and certainly, most African-Americans have heard of slavery and of Jim Crow. It is generally conceded, excepting, perhaps by Tea Partiers, that neither was a high point in American history. But, we don’t really know intimately, in all it’s gory detail, what those centuries have done to the victims and to the perpetrators. There is a difference difference between knowing that people get shot and bombed in wars and having seen young men holding their intestines in their hands or looking, quizzically, at the place where their leg used to be.
Brother Coates does not deal much with slavery, or even Reconstruction but, he does lay out, in vivid detail, the insidious pervasiveness of what America did to its darker brothers and sisters in the last century. He chronicles how this country has cultivated its Black citizens like a cash crop and callously blamed them for not beating a stacked deck. So, Blacks have been doomed to fail and whites have been tricked into believing their successes were fairly earned. He points out very eloquently how American history, as it is taught, has tied itself into knots trying to remember and forget at the same time.
“The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism a la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’ body. If Washington’s crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge,” wrote Coates.
I have a degree in history from Harvard. I passed my comprehensives in “American History since 1789.” Neither Hemings nor Judge were ever mentioned. Neither were scores of others I’ve learned of since. Charles Drew, James Griffin, Elijah McCoy and Jean Baptiste Du Sable were all from column B on the a la carte menu. Is it a surprise that, even today, spell-check questions my spelling of Hemings and Oney.
The cumulative effect, on a people, of centuries of subjugation, brutalization, miseducation, thievery and all forms of terrorism is almost incalculable. But, it is only half of what it would take to cleanse the hearts and souls of a country that could and would do this to so many, for so long.