I’m reading two books right now, The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas R. Egerton and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton, but I find myself taking time out to read novels to give my mind a rest, because the subject matter is hurting my brain and my soul. Both books tackle the complicated, violent, and oppressive history of slavery in America.
When I studied American history in fifth grade, I can only recall slavery being covered in one brief paragraph in our textbook. I don’t recall any lectures or discussion about it. In my all white classroom, it was but a footnote in the great history of our country. And yet it was 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act had passed and the same year the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in the case of Loving vs. Virginia.
When I met Ronald (for first time readers, my husband Ronald is African-American and I am Irish/Italian-American), in 1976, I was not aware that interracial marriage had been illegal in many states just nine years before and would remain illegal in South Carolina and Alabama until 1998 and 2000 respectively. I admit to my naïveté and the shock I experienced over the years as my sensitive psyche was exposed to blatant racism and discrimination.
Almost 40 years have gone by since we met and the nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the other day we were just discussing how little things have changed. Yes, we have a mixed race president, but he has experienced hatred and obstacles every single day of his presidency. Black men are being targeted under Stand Your Ground and Shoot First laws, a new method that, like lynching, is designed to keep black men afraid and contained. Schools are once again likely to be segregated rather than integrated. Police brutality occurs most often in high minority areas.
Many of the incidents I am reading about in both books differ only in the time period and actual execution from what is still happening today. Those beliefs and attitudes about the difference between people of color and colorless or white people still exist.
I want to believe we are above this, but we aren’t. I want to believe things will change, but they haven’t. Not in my lifetime. How many lifetimes will it take? How many books, blogs, or films will have to be written and made? How many voices will have to shout to be heard?
I still feel the presence of our past. It lives in the soil and in the air and in the difficult and often dangerous relationship between people of color and white people. I wonder what violence was unleashed upon others on the very land on which my house sits.
When I read passages from the two books, I can see the bloodshed, the beatings, the murders, and the way in which freed blacks were promised one thing by President Lincoln and the promise taken away by his successor President Johnson, a Southern sympathizer. I understand the frustration and suspicion freedmen felt and the utter danger their lives were in as they took each step toward equality, including land ownership and schools to educate their children. Yes, equality was a goal even then. In the meantime Federal troops were pulling out of the South, black and white, weary of war and ready to return to their families. Freedmen were at the mercy of the locals who were angry, accusatory, self-righteous, and violent.
What’s changed? As our country becomes browner, white Americans grow more conservative. They cling to those times when they were self-acclaimed superior by virtue of their skin color.
What are they afraid of? They are afraid of the same thing slaveholders were afraid of: a revolt, an uprising, the tables turned.
They cannot imagine being treated as they have historically treated others.
But no one that I know of is hoping for that. We, people of color, women, LGBT, only ask for equality. The very same thing freedmen asked for after the Civil War and during reconstruction. Yet 150 years later, we have not achieved it, and in many ways, like with the SCOTUS decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1964, we have regressed.
How can we achieve equality and eliminate racism and discrimination? Through the difficult journey of truthfully studying our history, enacting laws aimed at stopping discrimination, demanding fair and equitable treatment and opportunities for all Americans and those who want to become American, and educating to target the deep-seated racial attitudes and legacies that are systemically and institutionally embedded in our social fabric.
As individuals, we can make the effort to know and understand the history of our country, to be sensitive to and aware of our own prejudices, and to speak up when we witness prejudice and hatred. Not simple requests, but they are the foundations of a progressive future where everyone is equal.
How else to bring closure to our history of hatred, oppression, violence, and genocide?
1866 campaign poster of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Heister Clymer. He lost the election.
An example of some of the "campaign" literature during President Obama's runs. Some things haven't changed. See more here.