Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon Press, Boston, 2014
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Developer, The 1619 Project. New York Times, 2019
Two recent history books are shaking the United States to its political foundations. The truth has a way of doing that. Republicans are in such a fury that they are banning books on a scale not seen since Nazi book-burnings. The more they ban books, the higher they go on best-seller lists, and that is as it should be. My enthusiastic recommendation may not carry the weight of Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s raving condemnation, but I add it just the same.
“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books—books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon? ‘” – attributed to Winston Churchill
“An Indigenous” recounts the same history we’ve always studied, but it adds a framework that makes sense of it all: Europeans came to an inhabited continent and took it over. Anybody who opposed them was enslaved, killed, or otherwise subjugated. If one were being kind, they might say abstractly that a superior economic system displaced an inferior one. If one were being truthful instead of kind, they would have to call it plain genocide.
“1619” simply recounts the history of slavery in North America. It is a collection of facts, essays, and poetry by various authors. It paints a picture rather than telling a single narrative. Instead of treating slavery as incidental to American history, it shows how fundamental and critical it really was. For example, the 1860 dollar “value” of American slaves was greater than all other capital investments in the nation! The legal structure of the United States evolved, not as high-minded ideology of far-thinking founding fathers, but as a series of compromises to placate enslavers!
That’s the explanation for the undemocratic Senate and the even more undemocratic Electoral College.
Some people may like to think that the enormous crimes of genocide and slavery occurred only in the past and that they are over now. But these two books show that the repression was and is an ingrained part of American life today. Every time that people of color began to recover, whites used every excuse to rob them again. One example occurred close to my home, in Sherman Texas in 1930.
The Texas State Historical Society has an account of a lynching of a young Black man who was accused of having raped an unnamed white woman. While Texas Rangers stood aside, the mob burned the courthouse to the ground. Just to show that the accused man was not really their target, they burned down the rest of the black-owned businesses in Sherman.
This is from their account, “More than 5,000 people filled the courthouse yard and lined an adjacent street. The militia had left. The lynched man’s body was dragged behind a car to the front of a drugstore in the Black business section, where it was hanged from a tree. The store furnishings were used to fuel a fire under the hanging corpse. The mob also burned down the drugstore and other businesses in the area and prevented firemen from saving the burning buildings. By daybreak of May 10, most of the town’s Black businesses, as well as a residence, lay in ashes. Among the businesses burned were the offices of a dentist, a doctor, and a civil rights lawyer, William J. Durham.”
In all of American history, the only serious attempt to allow freed slaves to get a foot on the first rung of the economic ladder came from General Sherman during the Civil War. He took over vast tracts of plantation land and allotted it, 40 acres at a time, to the families who had freed themselves and were following Sherman’s army. But President Andrew Johnson, as soon as Lincoln was assassinated, ordered all that land to be taken away and restored to the confederate traitors!
Native Americans only received land in a back-handed way. When their great lands in the East were stolen, they were given Oklahoma. When Oklahoma was taken away, individual families received parcels that, one way or another, they soon lost. The Osage once held Kansas and great swaths of the middle part of the United States, then were forced into a tiny, rocky reservation in Oklahoma.
There are a few examples of wealthy individuals or, under freakish circumstances, whole tribes. The Osage found oil under their reservation and were, for a few years in the 1920s, extremely wealthy. But the government appointed white people to manage their money. I’m presently reading “Killers of the Flower Moon” that tells how wealthy members of the tribe were systematically murdered.
How Are These Things Today?
You can get this from Google: African American households today have 10 cents for every dollar owned by whites. The average Native American household has 8 cents of wealth for every dollar of wealth for the average white American household. As of 2017, 22% of Native Americans were living in poverty compared with 8% of white Americans.
The great value of studying true history is that it explains the problems we have today in America and in most of the world. Brown and Black people continue to suffer as they did in the past, and descendants of Europeans continue to profit. Understanding problems helps point to solutions.