In America, white is a lot more than the skin color or race of our nation’s majority, albeit dwindling segment of that segment of the population, which has maintained its lofty position in the driver’s seat since the days of the Founding Fathers – if not for generations even earlier when the majority of the population on the continent that would eventually become the United States were Native Americans.
White, through a calculated manipulation of history and truth, has always been, and remains today, about power – political and economic dominance much to the detriment of the world’s and our nation’s “non-white people.” Like any form of power, those who benefit from being members of the powerful class have long fought tooth and nail to maintain the privileges and, by extension, legalized rights gleaned simply because of being born with white skin in a society that touts “whiteness” as the center, the norm – the most desirable state of being.
So, it should come as no surprise that with the recent publication of the attention-grabbing, highly-provocative New York Times “1619 Project,” many white, conservative Americans are up in arms, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a historian by academic training, who asserts that the report is “factually false,” “nonsense” and “propaganda” which should be an “embarrassment” to the editors and owners of the Times.
As the publication states in its preface, its purpose is “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [the year when the first slaves came to America] as our true founding and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
The recognition of 400 years of Africans in America that took place last weekend on the Virginia shores where it all began, has lit a fire in our nation – a “teachable moment” as Oprah Winfrey has been known to say that, which for all the bellyaching raised by detractors of the Project, will not be easily squelched even among the most powerful and vociferous, conservative-minded white Americans.
Historians, scholars, educators, politicians and journalists – even “Ma” and “Pa” – have taken differing views on the truth, or lack thereof, which the “1619 Project” claims to unveil. Nonetheless, whether the year we cite is 1619, 1776 or 2019, it’s hard to refute the fact that our Republic’s ideals of liberty, justice and democratic rule stand in stark contrast to the reality of life for those born “non-white” and has served as the foundation of America’s very existence from the days of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the landing of Africans in Virginia – even the so-called discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.
Truth be told, the economic system of chattel slavery that prevailed in the South for more than 200 years not only continues to leave its mark on American culture and institutions, but has reinforced the continuing of two societies within one. In this dual society, whites still enjoy the fruits of forced, unpaid Black labor. Meanwhile, Blacks continue to hover at the bottom rung, no longer chained by shackles but still “shackled.”
I disagree with those who contend that the “1619 Project” is anti-American or anti-white identity politics. Yet, at least for now, I cannot fully embrace the report’s finding without further, more careful review. I suppose I can understand the fury that’s been unleashed by those who cannot imagine abandoning a “collective identity” that’s given whites their firmly-grasped sense of being and belonging well over 400 years. If someone suddenly referred to my heroes as rapists, described my sacred tomes and texts as “false alibis” for a “world-historic crime” and reconfigured the hill on which America sits not as a shining site worthy of respect but one more accurately labeled as a landmark undergirded by the “unmarked graves of men it condemned to unlived lives,” I’d be ready to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone.
Give up my seat, my place of prominence, my undeserved perch at the top of the human totem pole? You must be crazy! No way – no how! As the 19th-century philosopher Lord John Acton said, while referencing the practices of the Roman emperors and Napoleon, “absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
We may not like the truth, and coming to terms with that truth may be both unsettling and painful, but one day – someday – America will have no choice but to come face to face with its own day of reckoning. As the saying goes, “and the truth will set you free.”