Erasing history

A couple of days ago, my boyfriend brought in a flier he’d found on the ground in the neighborhood. One of our friends who lives a few blocks away — a warm woman who teaches children for a living — had gotten one tossed into her yard, so he was on the lookout.

The flier was so over-the-top racist it didn’t seem real. I’d never seen anything like it in actual life, printed out, encased in plastic to protect it from the elements. It was a hodge-podge of racist clip art showing terrifying-and-ugly black men menacing horrified-and-beautiful white women, all under the gleeful gaze of a Jewish caricature with a giant nose. The headline called for “negroes” to be run out of our small town before they “ruined” it. Among other head-spinning text, the flier claimed that Jews were responsible for forcing black guys on white women as part of an evil plot.

“Sounds like some white dude is feeling inadequate because girls don’t like him,” I said.

“Pretty sure white chicks aren’t being forced to like black guys,” my boyfriend quipped “they seem pretty into it. Remember those women at the lake?”

We were swimming at a lake in Oregon recently, and these two middle-aged white women kept yelling up at a black guy standing on the shore about how stunning he looked. He was, in fact, chiseled to the point of absurdity, his body gleaming with graceful power, but it was still embarrassing to hear them. “Thank you!” they kept yelling “thank you for your art!”

For the slim minority who may feel passed-over by this story: if women appreciating other men (in appropriate or inappropriate ways) convinces you that there’s a conspiracy out against Caucasians (or against you in particular), that doesn’t mean that women are actually victimizing you. Or that the women themselves are unwittingly being victimized by a giant global conspiracy against the white race. Or against conservatives, or against men, or against you in particular. Nobody’s required to be attracted to you.

Racists are all up in arms about their ethnicity potentially not being number-one, which seems to tie in with their claims that their “history” is being erased. This was what sparked the recent events in Charlottesville. Although last I checked, most basic history courses still focus on what white dudes did, from antiquity up through European revolutions to the Renaissance and over into the Americas. I can’t recall ever studying anything else, actually — all of my formal history — all of it — focused on Mesopotamia and Europeans, including when the Europeans invaded other continents. Nothing else was ever assigned to me, although I did delve in tangentially and on my own time. For example, until recently, I didn’t even know that the Mongols had the biggest contiguous empire the world has ever seen — if you’d asked, I’d have said the Romans, who appear far down on the list of the world’s biggest empires. I grew up hearing about the Roman empire not because the Roman empire was the most giant, but because it contributed so much to European history.

Even the linguistics I studied focused on European languages. Linguistics, in theory, gave us generalized knowledge about all the world’s languages, but still, nearly all of my knowledge relates to European language. I can tell you the etymology of words from French, maybe I can give you their Latin root; or I can point out that the word came from Anglo-Saxon and thus was less formal. I cannot, however, explain the history or grammar of any non-European language with any great degree of accuracy. I decided to map out the phonetics and grammar of an unwritten African Bantu language in grad school, but my project was far from conclusive.

A big part of the rationale behind maintaining statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee (often celebrated as a kindly, godly man, although the record appears to show something a little different) and conquistador-explorers such Christopher Columbus (often celebrated as an Italian hero, he is also despised for bringing genocide to an entire continent) is that you “should not erase history.” Indeed, you learn from history, or you’re bound to repeat it.

I agree. We should absolutely learn from history. The question is, whose history? Generally, when people say this, they mean history as it has been told by Europeans and their descendants, and specifically, the Europeans who were in charge. Histories in tribal languages — from the tribes of Gaul to the Salish of the Pacific Northwest — were swallowed in conquest, silenced. Stalin suppressed non-Russian languages; Franco banned Catalan; the US government forbade Native American children from speaking their tribal languages. US slaveholders nearly always forbade their African slaves from writing in any language. Some of these lost histories have been recovered, but many have not.

In the Jim-Crow era south, the “history” was that slavery had actually been beneficial for (most) blacks, and that the south seceded for “states rights.” Of course, this is true: states’ rights as they related to owning people. For example, the South was annoyed that the Northern states did not enforce their Fugitive Slave Act and return escaped slaves.

This pro-slavery rhetoric made its way into a lot of homeschooling texts. I was never assigned any of these texts, but I did hear the general ideas secondhand. As a result, I was somewhat surprised when I dug into the actual details of American slavery later in life.

I remembered all this when I found that flier, and more when I mentioned the flier on Facebook, asking for everyone to take note and stand up if they saw something. By the time the post was up to a couple of hundred shares, I started being accused of having made it up. Apparently, there was a contingent in my hometown who believed — without any evidence whatsover — that the racist fliers had actually been created by “leftists” to “stir up trouble.”

Never mind that the only people who benefit from racist fliers are racists: such things tend to scare the diversity out of a population and make leftists nervous about staying. The conspiracy-theory contingent pointed out to each other that I “had a blog” and had commented about race before. So they dismissed it as “fake news.” Why, I’m not sure, but one thing was clear: my own history — the history of being outraged and calling for people to brainstorm about how we could combat this kind of racist idiocy — was being erased, so to speak, right in front of my eyes. If it was inconvenient, it simply did not exist. An alternate history was put into place.

Such cries of “fake news” make it impossible to listen to small personal histories — often much more important than this story. If something is fake, then clearly, it should probably be ignored or ridiculed by those in the know. If people are making things up to “promote an agenda,” it behooves you, as an intelligent and reasonable human, not to be duped. And this is why labeling something “fake” because you disagree is so effective. You get to erase someone’s story and feel good while you do it.

One thought on “Erasing history

  1. Americans always amaze me. Oh, we have our own collection of racist idiots in Canada, but they are really quiet because they know that talking like that will have negative repercussions. American racists have no such brake, and produce the amazing amount of bovine gastrointestinal byproducts.

    Being a borderline sociopath, with a family whose colour is like Manny’s in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I have fun with them. A huge number have blocked me over the last few years. Talk BS at me, and I’ll cut you off at the knees.

    Keep up the good work Katie. I love your writing, and your common sense approach to life.

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