It may be my imagination, but this year Black History Month has seemed to present a more complicated range of memorials than in the recent past. For one thing, there seem to have been fewer broadcasts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rising tremolo in the penultimate moments of his “I have a dream” speech. In an odd way, I think that’s a good thing. While it’s a speech that automatically brings me to tears, it’s also true that it has been overdeployed to the point of cliché. The yearly ritual of celebrating black history through a sixty-second soundbite of Dr. King’s most famous address flattens the great complexity of African-American history. Indeed, in his new book, I May Not Get There With You, DePaul professor Michael Eric Dyson has gone so far as to recommend a moratorium on playing the “I have a dream” speech, precisely because he thinks its ubiquity masks the complex and deeply challenging remainder of King’s work, including his withering critiques of capitalism and ardent support of affirmative action.
One of the shifts in mood this year is attributable to the fact that after years of denial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation just published its conclusion that Thomas Jefferson very likely fathered not one but all six of Sally Hemings’s children. The most direct result of this development is that the family burial plot is now free at last to receive the remains of Hemings’s descendants–many of whom lived or are living as white people. The more general result has been a popular rush to romanticize this history, typified by a CBS miniseries in which Hemings is depicted as an irresistibly saucy, seductive, choice-making agent who quotes Thomas Paine, Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence even in the wake of her childhood sweetheart’s lynching.
This month has also brought us the report of a commission in Oklahoma concerning the 1921 white race riot in which Tulsa’s black community was bombed and burned to the ground. It concludes that hundreds more probably died than are accounted for in the official tally, and that the attack was sanctioned by the city’s most prominent public figures. An effort to locate a hidden mass grave is under way, assisted by the recollection of a white witness, then a 10-year-old boy, who remembers peeking into wooden crates in which multiple black bodies lay heaped. The findings have fueled fierce new debates in Tulsa between those who desire reparations and those who want to let bygones be bygones.
In the academic arena, there is a series of new books examining what the concept of “whiteness” both hides and reveals. I am glad to see this development, for I think it is good that our inquiry include not just black but white progress in race relations. One of my favorites is White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness, by cultural critic Maurice Berger. Berger begins from a painful and quite intimate perspective, reflecting upon how his immigrant family became assimilated as white. He describes the racial ambivalence of his mother, a Sephardic Jew who was ashamed of her own dark skin and curly hair. He then traces his own contradictory sense of privilege and oppression as white, Jewish, male and gay, while growing up in a largely African-American housing project. In the rest of the book, Berger, one of the curators of the Whitney Museum’s “The American Century” exhibit, interviews scores of other people, particularly in the art world, about how images of whiteness are envisioned, assembled and disseminated.
Perhaps the most fascinating and historically significant contribution to the genre of whiteness studies is Bitters in the Honey, a new book by sociologist Beth Roy. Over a period of six years Roy interviewed approximately sixty white citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas, about the integration of Central High School in the fall of 1957. Her subjects include many of the students whose well-publicized racist taunting made national news. They also include Governor Orval Faubus, who called out the National Guard to bar the way of the nine black teens who tried to enter the school. What emerges is a complex picture of white racism very much “linked to something problematic in white lives.” Of course, this does not mean that white racism is by any means more burdensome for whites than for blacks, but Roy’s interviews reveal with stunning clarity the way in which aggression toward blacks is intimately related to denial of a whole host of other social problems. In these interviews, racist scapegoating implicates class shame, job scarcity, peer pressure, cowboy notions of masculinity and domestic abuse.
If this much is not entirely new as a theoretical matter, Roy’s singular contribution is to trace the specifics of that mindset across a forty-year span: The white teens at Central High today are adults who typify the generation that launched the great suburban migration known as “white flight”; who hate blacks not because they consider themselves racist but because they think blacks have more rights and easier lives than whites; who see themselves as innocent victims of big-government interference; and who cannot for the life of them imagine how their own children have ended up so much more racist than they profess ever to have been. “I don’t think it came from home,” says one of Roy’s subjects of his children’s racial resentments. “Sally and I don’t, we’re not vocal about our prejudices.”
For the past forty years, and for the past 400 years, we as a nation have been eerily “not vocal” about the deep structure of racism. And so some measure of white America’s prejudice has lived on, just quietly. It would be better to feel ourselves unsettled by the full truth of these historical horrors before we commend ourselves for having buried the past. As we peer into the unmarked graves of the ghosts that haunt America still, perhaps the path to peace lies not only in dreaming a better future for black children but in awakening white Americans to their own history, and to what historian Michael Harris has called “the past we are creating now.