I grew up in South Carolina in the 80’s and I distinctly remember a sense of pride in the room of my junior high American History class when we got to the bit about the rebel soldiers from our beloved port city of Charleston firing the first shots of the Civil War. We Southerners were a fiercely independent brand of patriots, we were taught, who weren’t going to let the Yankees living five hundred miles away tell us how to live. Even though my school had more black students than white, it was clear to me even then that nowhere in the concept of “Southerner” was the black experience. I vaguely remember learning about slavery but only in the abstract, as a sort of short-lived cultural relic, a byproduct of that era, just… how things were.
I’d like to think students are getting a better education today, but I can’t say I’m reassured when just a few years ago, on a self-guided tour of a former plantation near Charleston, I pressed the little button on the placard at the site of the old slave quarters and was greeted by the voice of a happy-go-lucky black man boasting proudly about the hard work and dedication he’d put into this property all those years ago, like he was showing off a prized vinyl collection.
The slave bit never came up.
“History is written by the victors,” said Churchill, and truer words were perhaps never spoken, except Churchill didn’t actually speak those words, we just learned it that way because he’s part of the white victor class which has been writing our history books for centuries. I am saying all of this now to name it, to call it out, to speak it loud and true, because if these past four years have taught me anything it’s that words matter, words are powerful magic, words incite coups, words divide a nation; and what is history but a bunch of words?
When we avoid, gloss over or pass the buck on the shameful parts of our history, those parts don’t go away, they sink, like magic beans heedlessly tossed down in the fecund soil of our collective psyche, they take root and gestate and swell until yet another black man is murdered by the state crying I can’t breathe for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and the tears and sweat-rage from thousands sodden the land sending all that history skyward like some almighty magic beanstalk blotting out the sun.
For any white person who feels excluded on this Black History Month, I propose you take back what’s yours because slavery isn’t black history, it’s white history. It’s my history and your history, and when the black imprisonment rate is more than 5 times that of whites, it’s history still in the making. The giant walks among us. And yes there is terrible pain in these words and terrible shame in my history but I am going to keep calling it out. I am going to speak it loud and true.