Thursday, February 22, 2007

White History Month?

While I don't really agree with Gary Younge's argument for a White History Month in The Nation, he makes some great points. Younge argues that we need a White History Month because so much white history, particularly our history against minorities, is forgotten about. This is absolutely correct. But the problem is not a need for a month dedicated to what whites have done. Much greater is the celebratory nature of American history.

Americans only want to focus on the positives of our history. We want to celebrate all the great things we've done. When progressive values starting catching up to Americans, we added a Black History Month and Women's History Month in order to spend special time focusing on the accomplishments of African-Americans and women. And that's fine. But we need to do more to understand our history. Even Black History Month gets caught up in mythologizing in damaging ways. For instance, as Younge points out, "As one means to redress an entrenched imbalance, it gives us the chance to hear narratives that have been forgotten, hidden, distorted or mislaid. Like that of Claudette Colvin, the black Montgomery teenage activist who also refused to give up her seat, nine months before Rosa Parks, but was abandoned by the local civil rights establishment because she became pregnant and came from the wrong side of town." Younge seems to argue that stories like Colvin's get discussed during Black History Month, but I see no such evidence. Rather, Black History Month focuses a lot on a few seminal figures in African-American history--King, Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, and perhaps a few others.

More importantly, Younge discusses what it means to be an American. He writes: When it comes to excelling at military conflict, everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, "We won World War II." By contrast, those who say "we" raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by. You cannot, it appears, hold anyone responsible for what their ancestors did that was bad or the privileges they enjoy as a result. Whoever it was, it definitely wasn't "us." This is one more version of white flight--a dash from the inconveniences bequeathed by inequality." Completely true. Americans, but whites especially, carefully pick and choose what actions define us as Americans. Does slavery? No, we say, especially if we are from the North or West. But slavery has defined this nation from its very founding and continues to do so today. What about the treatment of Indians? What about the abandonment of cities after World War II and the ghettoization of blacks? We could go on and on. These things are equally as important to American identity as flying the flag on Iwo Jima or Washington crossing the Delaware River. We all, regardless of race or gender, need to view American history in more complex manners in order to come to terms with our past and perhaps more importantly, our present.

Ultimately Younge's point is this: "So we do not need more white history, we need it better told." Absolutely! I want to end this essay by offering a concrete idea for making this happen. I believe we need to reform the historical mission of the National Park Service to focus on more complex histories. First, let me say that I am not slamming on the Park Service, especially the average employees. Rather, it is leadership at the top and more specifically Congress that decides what stories get told and more importantly, where they are told. That's where change needs to happen. Park Service sites are basically nationally approved places of importance in our history and therefore is the natural place where reforms to government-sanctioned interpretations of the past need to happen.

The Park Service has many missions and doesn't get the funding to accomplish all them adequately. One of them is interpreting the American past for visitors to the hundreds of historical sites around the nation. For the most part, those sites focus on the celebratory side of American history: president's homes, battlefields, Martin Luther King's birth home, the Seneca Falls Convention. These things are all very important and deserve protection and interpretation. But Congress has been hesitant to push for the discussion of the deep and overwhelming dark side of American history. This is especially true when it comes to class conflict and African-Americans.

In 2 areas, Congress and the Park Service has been willing to discuss less celebratory matters. The first concerns Native Americans. Lots of Native American battle sites are preserved today. But these were preserved for a long time and were originally interpreted in a very pro-white way. When progressive forces demanded that both sides of these stories get told, the institutional structure for new forms of interpretation was already there. It was relatively easy to get the Custer Battlefield renamed to Little Bighorn. Plus, Americans have long romanticized Indians, even as they were destroying their homes and cultures. By 1900, with Indians finally subject to American power, we already looked to them as our spiritual ancestors, even as we provided them with rotten meat and expected them to disappear from the world in a couple of generations. What's significant though is not that the Park Service, and therefore the nation, never mentions Indians after their conquest. Most museums in the United States treat Indians as if they were dead cultures with no history after 1880. Why is there no discussion of conditions on Indian Reservations? Where is the Ira Hayes National Historic Site in Arizona, which would be a perfect place to discuss both the contributions Native Americans have made to the nation and the conditions that they lived under that led to Hayes' all too early death? Sites like this should be a top priority in this country.

The second place where the government has been willing to discuss our negative past is Japanese Interment. This is a completely good thing. Manzanar has been run by the Park Service for a good bit of time now and Minidoka was added by Clinton. Recent bills have passed Congress protecting all the major concentration camp sites, although the money isn't really there for them to be properly interpreted, which is typical. I think this is happening in part because Asians are today a non-threatening minority to white domination of the nation. Animosity toward Asians is at an all-time low and they are seen as the "good" minority group. So it's OK. However, Asians were traditionally treated awful in this country. Where is the Chinese Exclusion National Historic Site, perhaps at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay? That is a story that desperately needs to be told, yet is not. Many Americans remain completely unaware that the Chinese were not allowed into this country between 1882 and 1943. Racism and immigration restrictions are key to our national history yet don't have much of a place in our national narrative.

Finally, there is the history of African-Americans. There have been a number of African-American park sites opened in recent decades. This is great. The Martin Luther King site in Atlanta is a good one. More recently, Central High School in Little Rock was acquired and is now open for interpretations on school desegregation. There is a Booker T. Washington site, one for African American history in Boston, and one for Brown v. Board of Education. I'm glad they are here. Not surprisingly, most of these sites celebrate black pride and the ability of African-Americans to overcome racism. Awesome. But more is needed here as well. We need sites specifically designed to discuss the terrible things whites have done to blacks. To start with, we need a National Slavery Museum. It's a joke that Washington, D.C. has a Holocaust Museum about a tragedy that happened on the other side of the world and nothing on the greatest injustice ever done in the United States. There are clear reasons why this has happened, particularly the funding sources for a Holocaust Museum that don't exist for a slavery museum and the ease of telling a story that we don't hold direct responsibility for. But it is absurd, wrong, and tragic. It is just this kind of story that Americans need to be told every day.

While I support a pretty big expansion of the Park Service to interpret these new kinds of sites, allow me to suggest 10 new sites to start with that would go a long way to show that the American people is willing to come to terms with its past.

First, the three I've already mentioned:
1. Ira Hayes site, Arizona
2. Chinese Exclusion, California
3. National Slavery Museum, DC

Now 7 more:
4. Parchman Farm, Mississippi. Mississippi has plenty of sites discussing Civil War glories but nothing on either its slave past nor its position as the worst state for blacks in the 20th century. Parchman was the horrid prison where black prisoners went and often didn't come out of. This would force Mississippi to deal with its particular past and would help Americans understand the true awfulness of segregation and racism.

5. Ludlow Massacre, Colorado. You could substitute any number of sites for Ludlow. The point is that we need sites about class struggle in this country and the massacres of workers fighting for basic human rights. Americans hate discussing class issues. But they are real and they used to mean war.

6. Braceros, California. You could combine this with a Cesar Chavez site and discuss the terrible ways Mexicans were, and still are, treated in the United States.

7. Mexican War, Texas. Put a site in south Texas discussing the ways the United States overran half of Mexico in the 1840s. I believe that there is not a single National Park Site on the Mexican War, despite the fact that much of it was fought on what is today American soil. The reason--that war tells stories about Americans we do not want to hear. That needs to change.

8. Cuyahoga River, Ohio. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. Americans hate to admit how much our industrialization damaged the environment. Deniers of global warming show this is still a problem today. Such a site would put America's environmental past into perspective. Also, it could be combined with the Cuyahoga site already is existence that is some kind of nature park. It would be nice combination.

9. Stonewall, New York. Although Americans would go ballistic if a site about homosexuality came about, the Stonewall Rebellion was a vital point in American history. There are so many amazing stories to be told about the history of homosexuality in the United States. Stonewall would be a great start.

10. Betty Friedan. I'm not really sure where Friedan is from. New York I think, but whatever. Point being that some historical interpretation of women's history that is not about suffrage is long overdue. Though Friedan had her detractors, especially among more radical feminists of the 1960s and 70s, The Feminine Mystique is one of the most important books of American history. A site for her would really about the situation middle class women faced after World War II and how they started to get out of it. This could be a wonderful site.

Truthfully, there are many more great potential Park Service sites as well. But these ten would begin bringing about the more complex and nuanced understanding of American history that Gary Younge advocates.