Whiteness and the Recollection of History
For the writer, there's nothing so frustrating as to sit in front of a keyboard and find oneself at a loss for words. To know there are a million things which need saying, and yet, you can't think of even one. Having experienced this often, I've devised a few strategies by which to allow myself to remain productive.
Two which almost never fail, and about which I'm not at all proud, are to turn on the television-preferably to an "all news" channel-or to get in the car and drive. The former, because there is always something so maddening being said that it would inspire even the least loquacious to pour forth social commentary; and the latter, because one sees multiple absurdities from a car window: folks in the throes of road rage, attempting to position their cars at the front of the barely-moving parking lot called traffic; or gas stations charging more for the same gas in the poorest neighborhoods than only two miles away in the wealthiest. Interesting, and all potential inspirations for the social critic.
And so last week, devoid of ideas, I began flipping channels; and just as I thought I would never find anything to anger or amuse me enough to write something unique, I stumbled across "Talk Back Live:" a CNN production, in which the host asks questions of guests, interspersed with comments from audience members, who sit in uncomfortable chairs, wearing large buttons with their first names on them, in what appears to be the food court of an Atlanta shopping mall.
There I was informed by the host, who was discussing the Kosovar refugee crisis, that "We as Americans don't know how it feels to be driven from our homes, to be refugees, and we shouldn't take that for granted." And that was all it took. After all, when someone explains what "we" have or have not experienced-particularly if that person is white-it's best to pay close attention, and ask just who is this "we" anyway? Who comprises this family to whom all of "us" theoretically belong?
Fact is, there are quite a few of "us" who need not be told to take seriously the thought of being uprooted from our homes, nor lectured to about ethnic cleansing. I'm thinking here of that part of "we" that is black, and knows that their very presence here "as Americans" can be explained by an act of forced removal; nor that part of "us" that is indigenous Indian, and has known little else since the white man first arrived; nor that part of "us" that is Chicano, and carries the collective memory of the theft of a large portion of what was Mexico.
And for more recent variations on the theme, there's always "urban renewal," which from the 1950's to the 1970's destroyed 20% of all urban black housing to make way for shopping malls, office buildings and parking lots; or "Operation Wetback," launched in 1954, under which nearly four million Latinos-including American citizens-were deported to Mexico; or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which assuredly involved removal from one's home on less than a voluntary basis; or Indian "boarding schools," which took in Native children stripped from their homes, so as to "Americanize" them and eliminate attachments to their indigenous cultures.
Yes, I think some of "us" know about life as a refugee; what it's like to be uprooted. But the ones who know aren't typically the ones writing copy for CNN, or the history books, and so it goes. If there's a better example of how history is written by the victors; or how the white perspective, flowing as it does from white experience, is usually passed off as the collective experience of all "American families," I, for one, would be surprised.
Given which fact, it's fortunate I like surprises, for I was about to receive one. No longer suffering writer's block, but rather, acid reflux, I ran an errand-a short trip to the post office-where I glanced at the commemorative stamp display above the counter. The Malcolm X stamp was nowhere to be seen-it having been promoted less thoroughly than the last Shaun Cassidy album-and in its place was the "1950's package": a collection picturing various elements of life in that most sanguine of decades. The promotional tag line said it all: "The 1950's: Family Fun, Suburbia and Nuclear Threats."
Now maybe I was a bit oversensitized from my CNN experience; but unless I'm mistaken this is a bit incomplete as a description of what the 1950's were like for some of "us." Family fun? Well sure, I guess families of color managed to have fun even under Jim Crow and other forms of oppression. From what she wrote, it appears Anne Frank managed to have "fun" in her attic hiding place too, but I'm thinking that misses the point-and would be seen as missing the point-if Germany issued a stamp extolling wartime Europe as a "fun" place to be.
Suburbia? Sure, if one was white. After all, the loans that subsidized families to move there during this decade, were virtually off limits to people of color. Less than 2% went to black families, thereby providing opportunities-and a bunch of that "family fun" -only to certain Americans, rather than the collective "we."
And "nuclear threats?" Well sure, my parents told me about the old "duck and cover drills," that were part of their childhood. But what they forgot to mention-because no one mentioned it to them-was that the "nuclear threat" posed by the much heralded "missile gap" favoring the Soviets, was a fraud. To continue trafficking in the notion that "American families" were at any real risk for nuclear annihilation during the 1950's is to ignore the fact that it was the government financed by those same "American families" that posed the greatest nuclear threat during this period: a government which had used atomic bombs twice and would threaten to use nuclear weapons on a half-dozen occasions in the '50's, according to declassified government documents. Nuclear threat, indeed, but not the one to which the Postmaster's alluding.
And as I drove home, thinking about those stamps-one of which pictures three kids (two white and one black) saying the pledge of allegiance in school, but fails to show the white parents outside the building threatening to kill the next black child who tries to join them-I remembered something my grandmother told me: bad things come in threes. And that's when I did it. That's when I turned on the radio. And there it was: number three-an announcement about the excavation of the original house Andrew Jackson lived in on the property which is the site of his mansion, the Hermitage. The announcer encouraged folks to "come and see what life was like in Jackson's day."
It reminded me of a few years ago, when I came across a brochure from the Hermitage tour, which handles Jackson's role in Indian removal by saying something to the effect that when "pioneers first settled this region," there were thousands of Indians: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw. But after Jackson's Presidency, "most of them had left."
And as I laughed at having experienced such a grand historical distortion trifecta for the day, I found myself thinking that if that brochure writer ever gets tired of working for the Tennessee Tourist Commission, he or she has a fine job waiting at CNN.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and political activist, and the founder of the newly formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). He can be reached at email@example.com