(Mis)Remember When: Whiteness and the Recollection of History

Published as a ZNet Commentary, July 3, 1999

For the writer, there is nothing so frustrating as to find oneself at a total loss for words. To know there are a million things that need saying, and yet you can’t think of a single one. Having experienced this often, I’ve devised a few strategies by which to address this “writer’s block,” and allow myself to remain productive. Two, which almost never fail, are to turn on the television to one of those “all news” channels, or to get in the car and drive.

The former, because hardly an hour goes by when there isn’t something so maddening said that it would inspire even the least loquacious to pour forth reams of social commentary; and the latter, because one sees all kinds of absurdities out of a car window: folks in the throes of road rage, attempting to position their cars at the front of the barely-moving parking lot called traffic; or gas stations charging more for the same gas in the poorest neighborhoods than only two miles away in the wealthiest. Interesting indeed, and all potential sources of inspiration for the social critic.

So last week, again devoid of ideas, I grabbed the remote control and began to flip around channels; and just as I was beginning to despair at the thought of not finding anything that would anger or amuse me enough to write something unique, I stumbled across “Talk Back Live,” a CNN production, in which the host asks questions of guests, interspersed with comments from audience members, who sit wearing large buttons with their first names on them, in what appears to be the food court of an Atlanta shopping mall, but which is actually CNN headquarters.

There I was informed by the host (who was discussing the Kosovo refugee crisis) that, “We as Americans don’t know how it feels to be driven from our homes, to be refugees, and we shouldn’t take that for granted.”

And that, as you might imagine, was all it took. After all, when someone explains what we have or have not experienced — particularly if that person is of European descent — it’s best to pay close attention, and ask just who is this “we” anyway? Who comprises this family to which all of “us” belong?

Fact is, there are quite a few of “us” who need not be told to take seriously the thought of being uprooted from our homes, nor lectured on the finer points of ethnic cleansing. I’m thinking here of that part of we that is black, and knows their very presence here as Americans can be explained only by an act of forced removal; or that part of us that is indigenous Indian, and has known little else since the white man first arrived; or that part of us that is Chicano, and carries the collective memory of the theft of a large portion of what was Mexico.

And for more recent variations on the same theme, there’s always “urban renewal,” which from the 1950s to the 1970s destroyed twenty percent of all urban black housing to make way for shopping malls, office buildings and parking lots; or “Operation Wetback,” launched in 1954, under which nearly four million Latinos, including American citizens, were deported to Mexico; or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which assuredly involved removal from one’s home on less than a voluntary basis; or Indian boarding schools, which took in Native children stripped from their homes, so as to “Americanize” them and eliminate attachments to their indigenous cultures.

Yes, I think some of us know a great deal about life as a refugee; what it’s like to be one’s “Negro problem,” “Indian problem,” or “national security threat.” But the ones who know something about it aren’t typically the ones writing copy for CNN, or the history books for that matter, and so it goes. If there is a better example of how history is written by the victors, or how the white perspective, flowing as it does from white experience, is usually passed off as the collective experience of all American families, I for one would be surprised.

Given which fact, it’s fortunate I like surprises, for I was about to receive one. No longer suffering from writer’s block, but rather a nasty case of acid reflux, I ran an errand — a short trip to the post office — at which place, I would have the occasion to glance at the large commemorative stamp display above the counter. The Malcolm X stamp was nowhere to be seen — it having been promoted for what seemed like all of an hour — and in its place was the new “1950s package”–a collection picturing various elements of life in that most sanguine of decades. The promotional tag line said it all: “The 1950s: Family Fun, Suburbia and Nuclear Threats.” Now maybe I was just a little oversensitive from my CNN experience; but unless I’m mistaken this is a bit incomplete as a description of what the 1950s were like for some of “us.”

Family fun? Well sure, I guess families of color managed to have fun even under Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression. From what she wrote, it appears Anne Frank managed to have “fun” in her attic hiding place too, but I’m thinking that misses the point — and would be seen as missing the point — if Germany issued a stamp extolling wartime Europe as a “fun” place to be. Suburbia? Sure, if one was white. After all, the loans that subsidized families to move there during this decade were virtually off limits to people of color. Less than two percent were extended to black households, thereby providing opportunities and a bunch of that “family fun” only to certain Americans, rather than the collective we. And “nuclear threats?” Well sure, my parents told me about the “duck and cover drills” that were a part of their childhood. But what they forgot to mention, because no one mentioned it to them, was that the “nuclear threat” posed by the much heralded “missile gap” favoring the Soviets, was a fraud. To continue trafficking in the notion that “American families” were at any real risk for nuclear annihilation during the 1950s is to ignore the fact (which you won’t see on a stamp anytime soon) that it was the government voted for and financed by those same “American families” that posed the greatest “nuclear threat” during this period: a government which had, after all, used atomic bombs twice and would threaten to use nuclear weapons on at least a half dozen occasions in the ’50s, according to declassified government documents. Nuclear threat indeed, but not the one to which the Postmaster was alluding.

And as I drove home thinking about those stamps — one of which pictures three kids (two white and one black) happily saying the Pledge of Allegiance in their classroom, but fails to show the white parents outside the building threatening to kill the next black child who tries to join them — I remembered something my grandmother always told me: bad things come in threes. And that’s when I did it. That’s when I turned on the radio. I should have just gone straight home and gone to bed or something. But I didn’t. And sure enough, there came number three: an announcement about the ongoing excavation of the original house Andrew Jackson had lived in on the property that is the site of his mansion, the Hermitage. The announcer encouraged folks to “come and see what life was like in Jackson’s day.”

It reminded me of a few years back, when I happened across a brochure from the Hermitage tour, which handles Jackson’s role in Indian removal by saying something to the effect that when “pioneers first settled this region,” there had been thousands of Indians: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw. But shortly after Jackson’s Presidency, “most of them had left.”

And as I laughed at the thought of having experienced such a grand trifecta of historical distortion all in one day, I found myself thinking that if that brochure writer ever gets tired of working for the Tennessee Tourist Commission, he or she has a fine job waiting at CNN.

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