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 protected]



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