April 3, 2017 (Analysis) I grew up in Mexico. As a child I saw plenty of dubbed Walt Disney programs. In those, things like the genocide of whole populations was never explored. However, Daniel Boone was a heroic defender of settlers on the frontier. First peoples were presented as tomahawk wielding cartoon versions of the monster that lurks in the forest.
Those same Disney programs portrayed the civil war as just a mere disagreement. The true cause for the civil war, that be slavery, was never shown. However, my primary school government produced textbooks had horrific photos of African slaves whipped within one inch of their lives. The scars on those backs never left me. Nor the reality that American society had serious issues of race, to the present day.
In those same textbooks we also studied the caste system of New Spain. In that system the Spaniard, born in the old world, ruled over all. His children, born in the new world, were seen as lesser than him. There was something in the New Continent air that made the Criollo a lesser being I suppose. This was a common belief, and it is racist at heart. At the bottom of this complex caste society were both the Negro (yes that is how the Spaniards called African slaves), and the Indian. There were many gradations of skin color, and value in society. All were explained in artwork and complex edicts that you can still find at the Archivo de Indias in Cadiz, or at the National Archives in Mexico. And there is a reality of deep racism that persists as well.
As part of world literature, we also read translated copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. No, the translations did not shy away from the word either. There was no issue in learning that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery. Yet, we had these toxic Disney images of the fantasies that continue to this day in the United States. This escapism from the very real and painful history that Americans refuse to learn is part of the American character.
The avoidance is hurting us. I am sure you have come across stories of young college students who are demanding safe spaces, and also demanding that certain language not be spoken. Just the other day I was told by a white person that no white person, under any circumstances, should utter the word Negro. It was a command, and when she got pushback, she did not like it. She could not see how this language needs exploration in precisely one place: Academia.
This person tried to compare the use of the N word in a business setting, where it is hardly appropriate, to the use of the same language in an academic setting. If there is a place where we should explore, contextualize and deconstruct language is in academia. There has to be a place where we can confront the sins of the past, and bring them to the present. I dare say, that in some ways the original version of Roots would not be produced today either.
What else should we not read in this fractured version of culture? I personally enjoy Rap music and the writings of EB Dubois. I might add, until the early 1970s the word was all over American literature and remains in African American institutions.
This is how dangerous this argument is. But you are not black, therefore you cannot read aloud the “I Have a Dream” Speech. Here is the question to any who believes this bullshit. Is Dr. Martin Luther King part of American history, or are we going to remove him from that stage? Because that is exactly what you are preparing to do. You are also preparing to deny the reality of African slavery, One of the two sins of American history. I understand, if in your search for your family history you did come across a slave owner. I get it, a bill of sale might trigger a guilt reaction. However, this is how we confront the past. Running from it is dangerous.
Here is where knowing the stages to genocide helps. Also knowing what happened after the Holocaust can be rather useful. The trials at Nuremberg were just under way when the first Holocaust Denial book came out of Spain, the year was 1947. The book is called Global Defeat, and some of the arguments made in the book are indeed linguistic. If you even acknowledged the reality of the holocaust, by conceding the language, you give it credence.
If you have ever walked into that swamp, this is part of the game. The effort is to deny it ever happened by delegitimization of the language surrounding it. Most people who are demanding safe spaces and that words, imbued with magic, not be spoken are not trying to deny the reality of slavery. However, they are seeding the ground for that denial. It is also a command from people who should know better.
What we are doing is engaging in a collective fantasy. As the country moves into a multicultural society, where nobody will be a majority, we are trying to create a Disney of ideas.
One last thing. This is a true story, and it happened at Lindbergh Field. Two Mexican tourist were discussing the color of their rental car. It happened to be a black car, and they happened to be white looking. A passing African American gentleman thought they were talking about him, since they were talking (in Spanish) about that black car. Thankfully a passer by stepped in and prevented a fight.
This is how many ways to Sunday this absolutism can lead to severe, even dangerous misunderstandings. It is time that those of us who care for language, and literature to say enough is enough. Yes, slavery is an ugly chapter. In many ways the consequences of it are not over. The statistics are clear, and the reaction from many whites to the election of the first black president were telling. But running away into our collective safe spaces will not help break long patterns. Rather this avoidance will reinforce them.
And I know that this will not be popular with some people. But if you practice the worst of identity politics, you are no ally of mine.
One last thing. The United States needs, urgently, a truth and reconciliation commission. We need to air all this dirty laundry, and stop running from the past. Until we do, we will continue with this infantile pattern.
Germany also provides a good model, as well as South Africa. The latter had that commission. The former has embraced the Holocaust as part of its history, and has not run from it. We need to do this with both slavery and genocide. The choice is ours.