Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Today begins black history month. Our nation has been focused on white men for far too long. Today we begin a month to shift that focus just a little bit.
Stories today focus on upset (typically white) parents when their children read something that indicates that minorities are abused, treated unfairly and that such problems persist today. Some states have gone so far as to pass laws requiring “alternative perspectives” on such texts to “protect our children”, meaning to protect specifically white children. There seems to be some concern that perhaps the children will begin to think for themselves and have actual feelings about that. The reality is that change is always difficult, and emotional distress is just a sign of healing, much as itching beneath a cast for a broken bone. We cannot evolve as a nation until we recognize and acknowledge the mistakes of the past, especially those that are ingrained in our society today. The irony, in my mind, is that the books against which these laws are aimed are the “alternative viewpoints” the laws purport to protect. If you want to see the textbooks glorifying white men and providing an alternative view of the truth, it’s really as simple as looking at most history textbooks today.
Those textbooks will present a “sanitized” picture of the slave trade. It will acknowledge that humans were kidnapped from Africa and brought to America to be traded as property, and it will do so in a manner that somehow sidesteps the way they were treated. When I went to school, they went so far as to claim that most slaves were treated well, given good homes, heat and food because they were so expensive that slave owners wanted to take care of them. Ignoring for the moment that these textbooks still speak of slaves as property as casually as we might claim cars are well taken care of because of their expense, it still isn’t true. Some slaves were fortunate enough to work in the owner’s house as maids or servants, and they were treated better than other slaves that worked the fields, so much so that they were often ostracized from the other slaves on the land. Most slaves, though, worked in the fields, traded and sold like livestock.
And while the history books often sanitize the slave trade, rarely do they speak of the role the slaves played in the building of America. The civil war is branded a “war over state rights” when, in fact, the key figures behind the war spoke openly about their desire to keep the right to own slaves. They seem to gloss over the importance of the slaves in building the wealth of the south and the slave holders, only to be “released” to continue working on the plantations because nobody would hire them or trust them to do anything else.
I’ll be honest, I do not know as much about black history as I should. I know that an attack of freedom on one of us is an attack on the freedom of us all. I know the Native Americans have been treated immensely unfairly, and still do today. It was only a few years ago that the US government sued to break a treaty with the Native Americans by withholding enormous sums of money that was guaranteed to sovereign nations of the Native American People that was promised in a treaty with them. Fortunately, the judge ruled that, indeed, the money had to be paid, but this case was just a few years ago. Speaking of textbooks, you probably won’t read about the Native American “Code Talkers” who were instrumental in sending messages during the second “War to End All Wars”. These were Native Americans who simply spoke Lakota. It was not encrypted, and never could the Germans break the “code”.
More Hollywood productions bring to light some of the extraordinary accomplishments of minorities. Recently I watched a movie based on a squadron of minorities in the second world war who flew escort missions with the bombers. It was an interesting film in that, not only did it show the amazing accomplishments of these incredible men, but also showed, at least to some limited extent, the second war they fought simultaneously, namely the war on racism. When I hear of great accomplishments of minorities and women, I never fail to remember that these accomplishments were made in a time when society, nearly all of society, lined up against them. It’s one thing to swim a river, but it’s something entirely different to do so wearing bricks. My hopes for this Black History Month is that more people will not only appreciate the accomplishments of minorities and women, but gain a greater appreciation for the prejudices that had to be overcome for these feats, prejudices that continue today.