Why White People Should Care
Many persons believe that the history of black Americans is worthless—a belief which stems from three factors: 1) that much of widely-known African history and the history of Americans who are black consists of victimization: litany of failures, slavery, oppression, colonialism and perceived lack of innovation, 2) that some black Americans use the American history of slavery and oppression to induce white guilt, and 3) that some black Americans use the same as an excuse for personal failure.
But if it is important that we know the history of our country’s founding and the important political, military, religious and social movements which have shaped this nation’s character—this nation’s people–then the well-informed citizen cannot escape this category of that history; to attempt to do so would be to separate black Americans from the rest of our countrymen once again.
Example: There has been much ado in recent years about the hymn Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, colloquially known since the 1940s as the Negro National Anthem. Many who had not known of the song, its origin, its significance or its informal role among black Americans, have misinterpreted it as some sort of repudiation of whiteness and/or America-as-founded (a notion which has been exacerbated by actual repudiators of whiteness). But the merest bit of investigation into all of these areas and the deployment of some historical perspective reveal that John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson composed the song as an anthem to God and to a nation which contemporaneously excluded black Americans.
But like any other tool–books and banners, for example–songs can be used for good, neutral, and evil purposes. That fact is separate from the intrinsic good, neutrality or evil of the specified tool, but without necessary information—without history—the truth gets lost and the tool become a bludgeon, and that is what has happened to Lift.
At the beginning of former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s annual State of the City address in 2008 (a prelude to the Democratic National Convention of that year), there was a major brouhaha regard the song when a singer named Rene Marie sang it in place of the Star-Spangled Banner, rather than in the usual order which the song is rendered—after The National Anthem.
At two separate blogs–Hot Air and Breitbart, I provided background on the song. The hosts were cordial and willing to receive new information. The commenters, however, were a different story. I was attacked by some commenters at both sites, but I didn’t take the ignorance and blatant racial slurs personally from the Breitbart commenters since I rarely comment there, though I suspect that Andrew was turning in his grave.
But with the Hot Air commenters, however, the situation was very painful, since I was a regular commenter there and both Ed Morrissey and Allahpundit had occasionally featured posts from my old blog. There were no racial slurs, but being called a liar by people who “know” me was shocking.
The most shocking thing about the two episodes, however, was that so few of the commenters had even heard of the song–a song which I can’t recall not knowing.
I’ve had a number of years to think about this and I’ve come to this conclusion: most of us—meaning most Americans–like to celebrate the good parts of our country’s history, but we often ignore the parts which might make us uncomfortable or cause us to reach uncomfortable conclusions about other Americans.
And most people don’t want to be guilt-tripped…especially for the actions of others. So it is that much of black American history is ignored by other Americans, especially white ones. But this type of knowledge gap has allowed the originally apolitical song to be used by all manner of political opportunists, all Leftist in nature.
Well, if you are afraid of being guilt-tripped, then I don’t know what to tell you, because anyone with a strong sense of self-discipline and strong attachment to truth can refuse inappropriate guilty feelings. And that same devotion to truth should make such people hungry for both the good and uncomplimentary history of a group people who are the most American of Americans.
“What would happen if there was a White History Month?”
This often-deployed rhetorical response to Black History Month always betrays a lack of historical perspective and an ability to be guilt-tripped. (If someone wanted to create a White History Month why should they care what anyone thinks?) I would applaud any individual who actually made an attempt to create such a cultural totem. Why?
Because, my fellow Americans who are white: your history is my history…and mine, yours. Let’s all act like it.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2009; the second edition in 2012. Her new novel, Arlen’s Harem, is due in early 2014. Help her fund it and help keep her blog alive!