Those Who Don’t Learn From History

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“Everytime I plant a seed, he says kill it before it grows.”

The history of the United States is a well told myth, a creation story, of peoples who were led by God to a new land with notions of liberty and autonomy and a vision for establishing a space that reflected the Shalom, the very image, of the kingdom of God. This myth is accented by lofty words such as “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Other lofty words undergirding this myth are “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Myths serve a number of purposes for a society. As with many myths, the narrative can rise to the level of the transcendent and the sacred. At that level, myths can become instruments for silencing other voices and for oppressing others. Myths undergird notions of being uniquely chosen and notions of superiority as well as the systems established according to a particular vision. Finally, myths can hide much uglier, less noble, truths. One might recall an oft-quoted proverb, “Until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Many in the international community have expressed confusion, have been dismayed, and have been shaking their heads at the recent racial unrest and protests, reminiscent of the 1960s, which has erupted recently in the United States. How could a nation with an African American president be in such turmoil? Why, almost 50 years after the end of the Civil Rights era, is there racial unrest? Has the United States made so little progress?

To be sure, it is a bit disorienting as an African-descended male of a certain age to hear about and observe current events. I look at the calendar declaring it is 2016 and wonder if indeed it is not 1816 or 1950 or 1966. I read the histories and the quotations from ancestors and I am further disoriented when I read those narratives that are 40 or 50 or 100 years old and realize just how contemporary they are. I wonder if some current journalist has plagiarized in writing today’s news reports. Then I remember that one reason we are repeating history is because the myth of healing and reconciliation was just that – a myth. We silenced voices, opiated the masses, and bandaged wounds with a little antiseptic. But, the wounds continued to fester. Untreated, wounds of puss mutated. Sepsis set in, but the toxicity did not kill. Instead, it created a new kind of life full of darkness and dis-ease. And from time to time, there is an eruption.

One does well to remember the history of the United States. Those who came to this land in the late 1500s and early 1600s arrived in a land already inhabited by others. The new settlers insisted that this new land was now their land. They claimed it in the name of their country and/or God. They declared the aboriginal people to be less human, even non-human. When the aboriginal population resisted, they were deemed savages. Eventually, the United States imported bodies from the African continent to be tools in the development of their vision of the new world. The African bodies were deemed sub-human or non-human. A majority were enslaved without human rights or civil rights. Slavery itself was an narrative that evolved to favor to favor the hunter and to restrict the lion. Thus, Black bodies were commodified, became chattel, and even bred and traded like cattle. Narratives of custom and narratives of law were developed telling the story of the Native Americans and the Africans in ways that further dehumanized and marginalized. Text trumped orality and established new ownership, new paradigms, and new social realities. The settlers kept order by the sword and this is indeed a crucial element in current events. Those who have created by the sword are necessarily maintained by the sword. There is a fear of the other who has been oppressed by the sword.

The contemporary history of the Diaspora is shaped by colonization. While Black bodies in the United States were not colonized in the strictest sense, there were influenced by a colonizing mentality. So, even when enslaved Black bodies were free, they were not, could not be, integrated or well assimilated into the master narrative of the dominant cultural paradigm. Homeless, they were, for the most part aliens in a milieu wholly hostile to their existence. In 1816, Henry Clay and others commented on the Negro problem noting that because of “unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.” Such understandings from the dominant cultural paradigm are encoded in the social DNA of the United States. As a result, deep wounds go unhealed and, in fact, healers are actively quarantined.

The United States has never engaged in healing processes of truth-telling like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Gacaca Courts. The risk of inconvenient truths is too great. Pax Romana is more important than Pax Humana. Denial is more favored than discourse. So instead, the United States continues to insist that the Emperor has new clothes. It continues to layer its sepulchers with white-wash and mask the smells with fragrant verbal oils and incense. But, sometimes, the death and decay resists. Sometimes, death and decay takes on new life. Sometimes, the dry bones prophetically rise again. And someone cries, “kill it before it grows.” Kill it before it disrupts the myth perhaps opening eyes to inconvenient truth. We will hear no prophet, entertain no healers, or be open to other truths. Thus, in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and so many other places, we witness the consequences. History repeats itself in deadly ways.

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