[ NOTE: This is based upon the original article written near another July 4, while working as a media coordinator at Florida International University, circa 1997. ]
Some things I heard at work the last few days has caused me to reflect on some basic issues about our society and the upcoming “birthday bash” of the USA. Some people were complaining that it’s going pretty hard on middle class white citizens these days. Hard to get a job. Pushy Latinos. Arrogant blacks. People in positions of power they don’t deserve. You know and I know, I was told, that sometimes we’re better qualified for those jobs. But they get them. As I sought a way to counter those views with reason and with clarity, I came face-to-face with history.
We need a new sense of history. Our pioneer past and our technological present leave each one of us as separated points (thousands of them), not a fabric. The concept of news with its immediacy (not to mention market value) suspends us in time like unfolding chapters of a cosmic soap opera, the next chapter of which now lies in the mind of the Author, dependent solely upon his will and his mood.
“How did we Get Here?” one might ask. “What does it matter? We’re here now!” seems to be the common reply. “Forget that old stuff. Lighten up. Today is the First day of the Rest of your Life,” goes the popular wisdom. That might well be a useful perspective for personal history, but it doesn't quite work that way for a society. The crisis of not knowing what History is, nor how to interpret it, comes down upon us heavily and repeatedly. And—yes—does affect our individual lives.
The notion that somehow we, as a nation, have escaped History, together with the tradition/myth of independence and self-reliance, gives rise to thinking that we are not responsible for the way things turned out, nor for correcting them, unless we choose to do so as an act of good will.
Thus, the concepts of reparations or affirmative action are often seen by the white majority to be generally unfair, individual acts which would be better seen and judged on a one-to-one basis. The thought that something might have happened in the past which explains the present conditions is not usually acceptable. Historical responsibility is unfortunately either barely understood or incomprehensible. If, as “common sense” dictates, each man is responsible for himself and his own destiny, how is it possible that we should give special privileges to some? Do we dare presume that everyone starts out on equal footing?
Here is one of the great ironies of any debate on racism and responsibility: it is taken as a given in mainstream American social ideology that the individual trumps the common or collective. Many writers and politicians use this “principle of individual merit” to denounce social efforts such as affirmative action or reparations, and claim each instance must be seen individually, each case judged on own its merit. Those admirable individual strengths of any European who just stepped off the boat, might well stand him in good stead, even while overcoming hardships, yet a black man in similar circumstances would likely have his individuality entirely dismissed from over 50 yards away. Deep-rooted racism permits the hypocrisy of the mainstream embracing the collective when it comes to punishment, and have that trump the individual should he be black.
However, a hundred fifty years ago, or ninety, or thirty, or ten, there were any number of real, individual, unfair and unthinkable acts committed by real people in their own time, who also thought little of the past, much less the future. Those acts, those countless acts of repression, torture, horror, separation, and degradation—to the degree of not allowing black people to learn to read or even possess their own names—have had long term effects. They violated the most basic principle given as the reason for founding this nation and society: Equality. Equality to be, to know, to have opportunities—the famous “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
What many fail to realize is that that entire heritage, that history came about through the real (if often inflated) “histories” and actions of real people in a real struggle over real conditions which plagued them in their own times. What they left to us (or to anyone who cares to know), are not bedtime stories, but rather the stories of the values they had felt compelled to fight for. We like to wave the banner that we contend stands for those acts and those values. As we do so again this year, we should be aware of the struggles and sacrifices necessary for all of us to continue to stand for those principles for all our citizens.
This July 4th,you can do something significant for yourself and for your friends. Remind each other that history is not just a funny hat that someone once wore or a talking robot at Disney World; remember, rather, that it is the sum total of what people did each day over the years. To those who say, “It’s not my fault—my ancestors didn’t have slaves!” point out to them that they lived in an economy that did. For those who claim, “I’m not to blame—my grandparents came from Ireland (or Lithuania, or Spain),” remind them that at the time they came here seeking a new life, whether they knew it or not, they were coming to a country that already had a historic debt to pay, and likely fleeing one whose debt was too big to pay.
You might not have contributed to the historical debt, but when the time comes to “pay it off,” would you rather do so with dignity and conscience, or in the streets, with pain, loss, and blood?
Author's NOTE: This is based upon an article written near another July 4, while working as a media coordinator at Florida International University (FIU), circa 1997. I "resurrected" it recently when the 2008 N'COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations) Conference was held at FIU. Reparations, one of America's "forbidden thoughts" (nod to Chomsky), one of many taboo topics that until touched and examined deeply, will always keep America at arm's length from acknowledging, confronting and dealing with its Reality.
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Alan Kobrin is an activist, web consultant, educator, and sometimes visual anthropologist, who seeks a re-dedication to democracy through participation; he has been active in the Green Party and elsewhere.