Special Opinion to the Mirror by Chas Cornweller
There was an interesting article released by the Cape Charles Mirror last month entitled, “Town Council calls Library Board’s Bluff on WWI Plaque in Library”. A nice, pithy read on the discourse between a town council member, town manager and the Library Board about the wording on a Memorial plaque commemorating those that lost their lives during the first Great War. The article was structured around the selected wording (colored) and the level of perceived offensiveness to the citizens of Cape Charles and patrons of the library. Like I said, a nice, well-thought-out read on societal norms of today as opposed to societal norms of early part of the last century and our collective views on racial issues, past and present.
It was in the comment section, however, where the firestorm truly raged. Proving once again, our racial past is not quite past and still lingers in the minds of many as a dark reaction akin to an ancient family dispute or a historic injustice done by a neighbor, unresolved, left to fester. Mr. Plante painted a very succinct message in one comment about the heroism of not one, but several Black units and the commendations they received by the French government. In the very writing of his comments, it was clear to see that racism played a large part in shaping of these units’ history. It is a known fact that blatant racism was a large and present danger prior and during the Wilsonian period of American history. It is a known fact that, even though several of America’s African American soldiers had fought and died under extraordinary circumstances and had been rewarded by medals of high honor by the foreign nation they had defended, the very nation they wore the uniform of, did not recognize their bravery for nearly another one hundred years. It is a known fact, that each of these African American units conducted themselves with strength and bravery in the face of the enemy and under conditions indescribable to the average person and unknown to the rest of the world. Yet, they were shunned, beaten, killed and terrorized by their own countrymen on their return to the United States. These are all facts and cannot be denied.
And yet, there followed comment after comment reflecting the poor relational condition of Black Americans with their fellow countrymen. Beginning with “When will you ever become Americans and drop the hyphen.” Or, “the smart ones use it as a ladder to success and truly succeed. Most are comfortable with the crutches of victim hood.” Or this perpetual falsehood…” Maybe stop committing 65-75% of all violent crime. Just a thought, as you are only 13% of our population.” The comment that really turned my head was one, so full of falsehoods, I could barely make my way to the end of the disinformation. And it is the reason for this article. The commenter was comparing the Middle Passage and Slavery, with all its baggage, to “The Great Experiment.” An odd choice of wording, I might add. For any astute reader and one knowledgeable of U.S. history will catch this as code for separatism. To compare, (and at the same time segregate black and white) to a “Great (failed – my words) Experiment” is to at once deny the role that White America played in the disenfranchisement of African Americans from the American dream. That’s point one. Point two is, in denying White America’s role, individual whites deny their own actions, their laws, their own history in that ruinous societal role. And lastly, by that very denial, they absolve themselves of their roles. By implying it was “They” (who are they?) and “their” experiment, most whites are not implicit in guilt. Didn’t take part, had no knowledge, how could such a thing happen? Besides, it was so long ago, right? Sound familiar?
In Nazi Germany, six million Jews and several million dissidents, communists, religious leaders, homosexuals, non-compatriots, and anti-Nazis were eliminated, by what some called “The Final Solution.” What was the general consensus by the population in the waning days of the war, as Allied forces liberated those killing fields? “We didn’t know, had no part of, it was out of our hands…etc.” It is interesting that the “Final Solution” and the “Great Experiment” seem cut from the same mold. But, maybe that’s just my perception. But, here is my truth on this commenter’s alternate take on America’s history.
First and foremost, slavery, indentured servitude and an economic system was not built to conduct an experiment. It evolved from many other places, many other situations. And it usually involved peoples’ greed or lust for power, and to a lesser extent, the conformity of society to “go along.” Many indentured servants were willing to put themselves in that situation to be able to travel from England to the New World for opportunity and a chance at a new life. They could not have foreseen if their sponsor was a just and trusting soul or if, when they landed, their lives would be a living hell and their land taken. But, they had choice. And their sponsor had his. At the same time, there were several uprisings in both Scotland and Ireland at a time in which it was expedient for the Crown to get rid of those rabble rousers and treasonous souls. And the Crown did so, by the boat load. So, many of those poor, white subjects with no country, no home, prisoners of the Crown really had no choice. Be hanged or be banished to live in a savage, untamed land across the Atlantic. But, they too, had made their choices (however badly – or justly – depending on varied points of view). Their lives probably fared a little better than most indentured servants. The final set of new emigres to this New World were Africans. The Portuguese actually were continuing a tradition begun by early African and Mid-Eastern (Islamic) tribes. The Spanish needed strong backs to mine and to work open field to replace captured and enslaved Native Americans who were dying in droves due to disease and the harsh work conditions. Africans proved hardy enough to endure the heat and dangerous conditions better than the Indian. Lastly it was the Dutch that first brought Africans to these shores in 1619, ironically, not as slaves, but as indentured servants. In fact, in the early to mid-sixteen-hundreds, many Africans could be freed either by working out those same terms as a white indentured servant, converting to Christianity or both. Those laws were soon to change and an increase in the trade would explode. Also, it is a known fact that other Blacks owned slaves and were working in the slaving trade. One such Black American was named Anthony Johnson. Slavery, as such, was a societal norm and an integrated way of life for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Slavery laws were written so that the African brought over from Africa on a slave ship had no more human rights than cattle. They were actually referred to as Chattel. They were to be owned, bred and worked unto death, nothing more, nothing less. Even from the church pulpits of the time, slavery justifications were expounded upon. The laws forbade teaching reading and writing to Blacks. Families were torn asunder at the very plantations where they were encouraged to marry and procreate. At the master’s death, a poorly written will or no will at all or a settlement of debt, could sentence entire black families to an irrevocable distance and a separation for all time. An entire culture of a people and the histories of their families were erased on a whim of their masters. This is the legacy of “That So-Called Great Experiment.” This is the lens through which Black America sees their legacy. No numbers of apologies from whites, no amount of reparations, no presentations of medals (in War and in Track and Field) and no possible human outreach can undo this legacy. This was a fact and still is a wound on America’s psyche.
And this is my point. Many whites, of which I am also, misunderstand at best, justify at worst the situation in which most blacks are placed in today’s society. I have heard so many of my white brethren speak negatively of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, Reparations, Civil Rights, Education Rights, Property Rights… stating as being unfair to them and creating a society where one race is being given unequal treatment in the competition for the American Dream. These are the people with blinders on. No amount of giving at this level can give back what was taken. The family structure (that even today is so prevalent and important in Africa) was damaged almost beyond repair during the slave era. Had it not been for the Churches and strong community leaders (in free states) extolling the strengths of community, many African Americans would have found themselves in freefall, both societal and within their respective communities. Is it any wonder, that in that Great War of 1918, that blacks proved their mettle in battle? “That Great Experiment” you write of? No, your facts are all wrong. For one, the experiment has lasted almost one hundred and fifty years. African Americans have been here for four hundred years. Can people be taken from the jungles of Africa and made slaves be fully integrated as citizens in a majority white population? Well, for one, it’s a trick question. Second, do they really want to be? I seriously doubt you’ll find many Black Americans who have a polka record collection or eagerly await Garth Brooks next album release. The beauty of America (in my view) is the melting together of cultures from around the world and the blending of people who rise and come together to make this nation what it is. America is not just one culture and never has been. It is myopic to even think so.
But it is the next statement that could not be any more false and I’ve seen it time and time again in this blog by different commenters. Here and now, I want to set the record straight. First of all, negating the majestic civilization of Africa is a plain falsehood. There have been literately hundreds, possibly thousands of kingdoms and cities. Beginning with the Kingdom of Kush and the parallel rise of Ancient Egypt, of which it was incorporated. In the region of Sahel, you had some of earliest known outgrowths of agriculture and multiple kingdoms rose and fell at the same time of Ur and Mesopotamia. That time period would roughly be about the time Europeans were crawling out of caves and still hunting and gathering. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Islamic Kingdoms of great wealth and power rose and fell. They were Songhai Empire, Benin Empire, Ghana Empire, Ancient Carthage, Aksumite Empire, to name but a few. To claim that Africans have been stuck living in the early Holocene epoch for all this time, with little to no cultural growth is laughable. It also shows a great misunderstanding of the African heritage and historical lineage that is their noble history. One more aspect that white cultural has denied their African brethren, hidden and buried in lies and misinformation.
The “Talented Tenth” was also taken out of context of its original meaning. The statement in the comment read…” There is a Talented Tenth. They are the black Americans who have become entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors and scientists. But ten percent is not enough. For the experiment to work, the ten percent has to be followed by a critical mass of people who can hold middle-class jobs and promote social stability. That is what is missing.” First of all, the author’s quote was misleading. Because that is not what the Talented Tenth was defining, according to W.E.B. Du Bois. Secondly, the Talented Tenth was not originated by Du Bois, it was coined by Northern Philanthropists, specifically the American Baptists Home Mission Society with the goal of establishing black colleges in the South to train black teachers. Du Bois went on to use the phrase in his writings and was quoted…” The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.” The key phrase the commenter uses that rankles is this.” For the experiment to work, the ten percent has to be followed by a critical mass of people who can hold middle-class jobs and promote social stability.” Not at all what the Talented Tenth intended or promoted. And on one final note, the falsehood of the author’s statement lies in its outcome. America is safer, America is stronger, America is greater, not in spite of her Black population, but, Because Of. (I refer you to the thirteen names on the plaque engraved under the title, Colored. You, Mr. Parks want to find the negative, find the fault in these people. Well, I want to find the positive that is why I am shining the light on the positive aspects of these people. They died in the very first instigation of our nation’s awaking (Crispus Attucks – March 5, 1770 – Boston Massacre). They have fought in every field of action inside this nation and out alongside their white brethren. They built bridges, churches, schools, homes, buildings in towns and entire towns. They contributed to the science and business of this nation. They’ve brought children into this world and they have buried those that came before us. They were/are teachers, preachers, housewives, mothers, fathers, children, grand-parents and the man who mended your fence and fixed your car. They are police officers, deacons of churches, doctors, lawyers, judges and the bulwarks of our communities. They were and will always be, an American citizen. And despite the odds and the backlash and the hatred and the countless unlevel and unfair legislations and laws passed to shackle them, they do their very best to promote social stability. As you quote Mr. Parks, “For the experiment to work, the ten percent has to be followed by a critical mass of people who can hold middle-class jobs and promote social stability. That is what is missing.” No, that is not what is missing. That’s never been missing. Black American’s have always been on board for the well being of America. The truth is, White America has not always been on board for the well being of Black Americans. If you want to call it a “Great Experiment” that’s your prerogative. But just make sure, that at the end of your experimentation, you double, triple check your results. Double, triple check your ingredients you’ve added as well. Because you and I do not see eye to eye on race relations in this great nation of ours. And you and I surely don’t see eye to eye why the problems are such as they are. And lastly, this experiment of yours, you call a failure, I call a resounding success. Yes, it needs tweaking and revamping in some quarters. But, that is on ALL of us. So, you better hike up your big boy pants, catch your second wind, put that “White Frustration” in a corner and look to the real reasons for your frustrations. The truth of the matter is, we’re all in this together and we’ve a lot of work ahead of us. Freedom isn’t free, ask any African American. They can tell you, pretty much, how high the costs.