Historical Perspective


I write this post with the full knowledge that some will find it self serving and weakly apologetic.

Still. I have to write down what I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks as I watch the national news.

I make no apologies for political leaders who have acted in ways that are offensive and crude.

But here’s what is on my mind.

When I was in my early twenties, I went to a Halloween party. I was dressed as “Morticia” from the Adams Family. It was fun! I wore the long hair, the big eyelashes, the long black dress.

My husband wasn’t sure what to wear. He stumbled upon a Santa Suit, and thought he’d wear that. But at the last minute, for reasons that I can no longer remember, he decided to be Black Santa. He put on black face and did his “jive” thing during the party.

Ha. Ha.

It seemed fine at the time.

At that point in our lives, having recently graduated from an upper middle class suburban Boston high school, we had never ever been taught about the shameful, humiliating use of “minstrel” shows and blackface. We hadn’t ever been taught about the Jim Crow laws, or the post Civil War attempts to keep our African American countrymen in poverty and subservience.

Maybe we should have figured it out by then, but we hadn’t. No adult, no school, no curriculum had ever asked us to look at the racist history of our county.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We thought black Santa was just fun.

Really.

And then there’s the memory that I have about applying to college. I remember having a high school counsellor who advised me to seek out any possible scholarship for which I might qualify. He told me to dig deep, to find odd little items that might bring me financial support.

I remember spending hours searching through a big book of scholarships. (We didn’t have the internet yet). I looked for anything that might include “second generation Italian American” or “Immigrant grandchild.” or “big Catholic family” or “child of a mechanical draftsman.” I searched for anything that might help my family pay for my degree.

I also remember my classmates scanning through the pages to find any possible scholarship related to “Native American” ancestry. At that time (during the 70’s) the biggest chance a kid had of earning a special scholarship was by identifying Native American ancestry.

Because my grandparents were all born in Italy, I didn’t spend a lot of time searching for those particular items, but I knew a lot of kids who did.

So.

What’s my point?

It isn’t to excuse the use of minstrel based black face. It isn’t to excuse our meager attempts to claim “Native American” blood even if it was only 1/100th of our family history.

What I want to say here is that I think the awful situation that is faced now by so many elected officials (Sen. Warren, Virginia Governor Northam, ) is in part perfect proof of how this country has completely ignored it’s awful history. We have not directly addressed our horrific treatment of our enslaved countrymen. We have let ourselves off the hook, as it were, letting our schools teach that the end of the Civil War was the end of racism.

We’ve let ourselves learn, believe and accept that what our ancestors did to the native people who lived here before us was acceptable on some level.

I know that I grew up as a white American in a white suburb. I read every word of every text book. I believed what I read. I accepted it.

I wasn’t smart enough to ask any questions.

I don’t know how many of my age level colleagues asked questions.

What I do know is that it has to be a huge, giant , national scandal that people like me were allowed to grow up believing that black face was just plain fun. It is wrong on every level that we were encouraged to look for personal gain based on the assaults on Native People.

If I was a duly elected public official who once wore black face in public, I’d step down now. I would feel that I owed it to all those who came before me.

If I was a duly elected public official who once claimed native American ancestry to achieve some personal gain, I’d back down right away. I would feel that I owned that to those who were hurt by my generation and those that came before us.

We have a chance, it seems to me, to right so many wrongs. At last, at last, at last, it seems that we have a chance to undo at least some of the horrors that were inflicted on those who have helped to make this country what it is today.

I wonder how we will respond.

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