Looking at the past through “A Different Mirror”

There are two things that tie this week’s post to my first one. First, these are facts that I never heard before, even though I took all the history classes needed to graduate high school and even more to earn the academic requirements for my associates degree. And second, and what really struck me more, I learned these things outside a traditional history class.

These two things make me feel somehow cheated by my earlier education, and what comes to mind is the quote usually repeated to highlight history’s importance to student’s who wonder why they should care what happened hundreds of years ago:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
– George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905)

If we have never learned the truth of our past, how can we remember it? If we are repeating past mistakes, how will we know? If we do not know the truth of what has gone before, how do we assess the rightness of the beliefs and values we cling to? Are the opinions we make based on our beliefs actually warped?

This semester I needed to take the second of three required university seminars at Quinnipiac. There are a number of sections offered within the series, but these special courses are designed so that “Quinnipiac students are introduced to major topics from university life to international issues.” QU 201 looks at the national community, and I registered for Professor Ray Lee Ranis’ class, “The Impact of the 1960s on American Life.”

We started off reading “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” by Ronald Takaki because it would help to set the stage for The Sixties. Takaki’s book is an examination of America’s past from the vantage of several different racial and ethnic minorities, including African Americans.

Of course I learned about slavery in school. And I’ve since learned that some of the ideas that we are taught about slavery are not necessarily the full picture. For example, despite the impression that we are often given, slavery was not just a southern institution and even after it was “abolished” in the North, many people there profited from its continued existence and racism did, and does, live on above the Mason-Dixon line.

But there are things I did not know until now. Yes, I learned over the years that Thomas Jefferson is a study in contradiction. For example, he was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence which declares that “all mean are created equal,” yet we know that Jefferson owned slaves – as many as 175. He did not ever free all of his slaves, and in fact, he freed only two while he was alive and five more upon his death.

I had always learned that Jefferson was opposed to slavery and sought to end it in the United States. I did not know until I read Takaki that Jefferson believed freed blacks would have  “to be removed from American society (p.63).” Jefferson believed that “blacks and whites could never coexist in America (p.64)” because of racial differences, including his belief that blacks were “inferior (p.65).” He was also outspoken against interracial sex and said that white America’s “amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.”

Jefferson advocated a plan of gradual emancipation with the idea that freed slaves would be removed from the United States. But Takaki tells us on page 64 that the economic costs of expatriation were not lost on Jefferson. Being “practicable,” the country could “deport the future generation” by removing black babies from their mothers, giving them occupational training until they were old enough to be deported, then sending them, he suggested, “to the independent black nation of Haiti.” According to Jefferson’s calculations, this would lessen the cost of expatriation from $600 million to $37.5 million. On the notion of taking children from their mothers Jefferson said it “would produce some scruples of humanity.”

The economic considerations of whites were often given priority when making decision affecting black lives. The end of slavery did not end that. Takaki discusses that many argued following the Civil War that emancipation needed to be paired with land distribution to prevent “the development of a semifeudal system based on the cheap labor of exploited and powerless blacks (p.124).”

Special Field Order Number 15 was issued during the war by General Sherman. It gave “‘possessory titles’ to forty-acre lots (p.124)” to black people and allowed them use of military mules. Although blacks believed they owned the land, lawmakers did not pass the legislation known as the “40 acres and a mule” bill. President Johnson pardoned white planters, who reclaimed their land, and the freed blacks were forced to work for the white owners or leave the land (p.124). Historian Rick Beard’s “Forty Acres and A Mule” was printed in the New York Times opinion pages discussing this very episode.

For many blacks there was little difference in their lives as slaves and their lives as freemen. Takaki quotes the words to a black folk song on page 124:

    Slabery an’ freedom
    Dey’s mos’ de same
    No difference hahdly
    Cep’ in de name

For me it brought to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have A Dream” speech where he said:

 America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

What might have been different if land grants were honored? Freedmen in the North were not slaves before the Civil War, yet they were discriminated against, excluded, and forced into menial labor. Would land have changed the southern blacks’ experience?

In the introduction to his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” James W. Loewen uses an interesting quote:

Concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people.
– General Petro G. Grigorenko, samizdat letter to history journal, c. 1975, U.S.S.R.

So my final thought is this … does omitting the parts of our past that we are not proud of, or that show us in a bad light, constitute concealment? Do we do enough to teach the truth about American history, including the negative aspects of our country’s past? If we acknowledge, accept and promote a more balanced view of history, do you think that would change the ways we view minorities in this country? Would it change the way we deal with the rest of the world?

Share your thoughts.