May 28, 2021

We don't often run a video here at Crooks and Liars with a transcript and little else, but on Thursday night Joy Ann Reid said everything that needed to be said about the white right-wing freakout over the teaching of American history in 2021. Listen.

JOY ANN REID: We in America are having this big debate right now about history, and fundamental to that debate is a question. What is history for? What is its purpose? The answer is that is, "it depends." History, as John Meacham has said on this show, can either be a bedtime story meant to buck up your patriotism and make you feel good, or it can be a lesson, a caution, and an instruction on how to avoid the perils of the past and how to achieve repair. When it comes to the racial history of this country, there's a real fight going on.

Lots of Americans, particularly on the right, want the bedtime story. They're insisting on it, and so they're in a knockdown, drag out fight to shut down intellectual pursuits like critical race theory which simply asks how our racial history intersects with the construction of our laws, or journalistic historical reckonings like The 1619 Project.

Too many people want to keep Americans blindly numb to the raw, racial violence in our collective past. They want Americans to just shut up and feel good about America's founding, and sing from the hymnal so they don't even have to think about dealing with the repercussions of our true history and the need for repair. They want to keep comfortably living off the profits of what is rightly called piracy with no one ever asking to examine the contents of the loot box.

But the past just won't die no matter how hard the Daughters of the Confederacy fight to rewrite slavery as happy Blacks singing in the field in our textbooks, and how persistent the gauzy myths about the slave-holding fathers remain. Many Americans needed [HBO's] The Watchmen to teach them about the 1920 race massacre in Oklahoma in which a white mob burned, shot, and used military planes to firebomb the Greenwood District where Black families had created a successful community decades after enslavement. An incredible visual that shows how profound the loss was, the theater, the barbershops, the bakeries, stately homes, and stores that were burned to the ground because white Tulsans hated the fact that Black people had built something of their own. They used the same lie that launched more than 4,000 lynchings in that era, accusing a Black man of assaulting a white woman as an excuse to wage war on an American town.

If the massacre that wiped out the community nicknamed Black Wall Street were just a one-off, it would be tragic, but it wasn't a one-off. Tulsa was one of dozens of similar atrocities across this country in the decades after the civil war and the collapse of reconstruction. In Memphis, Tennessee, in 1866 some Black families burned to death in their homes because the racist mobs who attacked them wouldn't let them run outside after setting them on fire. In New Orleans that same year, Black freedmen attempting a peaceful march were met by a mob of former confederate soldiers, and dozens were killed. The spark for the Wilmington North Carolina race massacre in 1898 was a creation of a white, Black fusion government which was violently cut down. The early decades of the 20th century were an era of pure racial mayhem as war was waged on the formerly enslaved and their children and grandchildren in the south and in northern cities where Blacks were fleeing and seeking work and a decent life. Four years before Tulsa there was a series of race massacres in East St. Louis, Illinois in July of 1917, in which more than 100 Blacks were beaten, shot, and lynched by white mobs angry over labor competition. 1919 was a particularly hellish year with Black men, women and children mass murdered in Chicago, Illinois, Washington, DC, and Elaine, Arkansas, where Black sharecroppers were massacred for daring to try to unionize. Two years after Tulsa in 1923 came the race massacre that wiped out Rosewood, Florida.

And that's just some of the history. There are dozens more of these I can tell you about, and you've probably never heard of any of them because America doesn't do history, we do bedtime stories. That's why we don't understand the way we are, the gun violence unique in the Western world, the racial mistrust, the poverty that breaks down along racial lines. The persistence of violent white nationalism that today threatens our national security. These things have deep, ugly roots inextricably tied to slavery and its aftermath. And we'd be better off just unearthing it and airing it out if we really want repair.

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