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America's Racial History - One Step Forward, One Step Back

Those of us who rejoiced at the election of Barack Obama felt a kick in the gut when Donald J. Trump was declared the winner of the 2016 campaign. The progress we felt that the country was making in 2008 seemed illusory and almost felt like a false promise. Was it even worth enjoying eight years under Obama to have the rug pulled out from under us so severely, giving us a White House with connections to the alt-right movement and a judicially regressive Attorney General? Among so many concerns,

perhaps our most profound is recognizing this significant step backward for racial justice and equality.

Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps not, several alternative histories have recently been written or developed that imagine ante-bellum world in which slavery still exists. HBO has announced a series, “Confederate”, which (according to HBO’s own press release), “takes place in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”

Roxane Gay alludes to this trend in a New York Times opinion (“I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction”). She makes a number of perceptive points, including this:

I wonder why people are expending the energy to imagine that slavery continues to thrive when we are still dealing with the vestiges of slavery in very tangible ways. Those vestiges are visible in incarceration rates for black people, a wildly segregated country, disparities in pay and mortality rates and the ever-precarious nature of black life in a world where it can often seem as if police officers take those lives with impunity.


It is curious that time and again, when people create alternate histories, they are largely replicating a history we already know, and intimately. They are replicating histories where whiteness thrives and people of color remain oppressed.

I recall growing up in suburban Baldwin, NY when the first Black families moved in. Jonathan Cummings joined our class in fifth grade. Within a short time, the role of class clown seemed to find him, and the teachers seemed perfectly willing to assign him this persona. In eighth grade shop class, the teacher, Mr. Perna, outwardly demeaned Larry Dalrymple, the one Black student in our class. Warning us about the danger of burning flames, he told us that if we weren’t careful, we might turn into “Larry’s color.” (Mr. Perna, you will never read this, but if by some miracle you do, I’m finally calling you out for your asinine, racist behavior.)

I have no idea what Jonathan and Larry might have done with their lives, as we get close to age 60. Would they, and others in their shoes, feel that we have overcome the outward racism of the 60s and 70s? Or would they look at the age of Trump, the ongoing fear of police, and the still limited prospects for African-American males and wonder if there is any reason to feel positive?

I have spent a good portion of the past year exposing myself to books—one nonfiction, two fiction, and one extended essay-- that I strongly recommend, as they help provide a window into the racial history of this country. The books are:

  • Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison – National Book Award Winner and considered a classic work of American literature. The book tells the story of an unnamed narrator’s journey from the South to New York, where he becomes involved with a confusing and someties violent revolutionary movement. The character finds power in his “invisibility” to others.

  • The Warmth of Other Suns (2011), by Isabel Wilkerson – National Book Critics Circle Award Winner. Wilkerson documents the great migration of generations of African-Americans from the South, during the period from World War I to the 1970s. Told primarily through the experiences of three individuals from different communities in the South, the book illuminates an essential story of 20th century America.

  • Between the World and Me (2015), by Ta-Nehisi Coates – National Book Award Winner. Written as an extended letter to the author’s teenage son, the book is a bold exploration of America’s racial history, as well as its present and future.

  • The Underground Railroad (2016), by Colson Whitehead – Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award Winner. This novel takes the audacious step of imagining the underground railroad of the slavery era as an actual mechanical entity that shepherds escaped slaves to the North.

Together, these authors provide a reminder or, if necessary, an education, regarding some truths about America’s racial history. My analysis of these books leaves me with four general lessons:

  1. The racial caste system in America has, to varying degrees, been based on oppression and murder. Calling it “Jim Crow” almost makes the system sound old fashioned and benign, but it was truly based on outward, extreme violence. As depicted in The Underground Railroad, slave owners and overseers, in order to maintain a grip on their slave population, needed to use harsh and violent methods. While Whitehead’s description of the three-day torture of a returned slave and the whipping of the main character are fictional, we know, based on history, that such events were commonplace. In Invisible Man, young Blacks in the South are kept in line through a clear caste system and outright debasement; for example, early in the book, a group of teenage boys are made to battle each other in a boxing match and then forced to grab their payment on an electrified carpet, to the amusement of the local White citizens. Experiences like this go beyond the mere fictional. Wilkerson’s narrative of the Great Migration provides a number of cases in which Blacks were forced to leave the South) based on lynching or fear thereof. Citizens could threaten and use violence without repercussion. Law enforcement officers were in many cases particularly murderous and brutal, including one in Florida who terrorized the Black population for decades. While the methods and degrees of racist oppression have changed over the years, it is still true today that African American males still have to walk a fine line in their interactions with police.

  2. For people living in this oppressed system, escaping the North was seen as a way out. This is clearly a narrative flow line in the works of Whitehead and Ellison. The protagonist in The Underground Railroad is making the most daring journey imaginable, risking her life for the promise of freedom in the North. The railroad itself (a metaphor in real history but a physical manifestation in Whitehead's telling) provides a direct line to states in which slavery no longer exists. In Invisible Man, the unnamed protagonist is forced out of his historically Black college in the South and ends up living in New York City. And of course, the very premise of The Warmth of Other Suns, and the millions of lives it represents, is about the drive to find a new life away from the Jim Crow South. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Newark were forever changed as a result of the migrants who arrived over those six decades of the 20th century.

  3. Life outside the South often did not live up to its promise. Some of the most haunting scenes in Wilkerson's book describe the actual journey of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a skilled Black surgeon, as he drove alone from Louisiana to California. During one excruciatingly long night, Dr. Foster was exhausted and needed to sleep. Safe in Arizona, outside the realm of Jim Crow, he went to a motel that showed a VACANCY sign, but was told that the last room was taken. This happened again at subsequent establishments. Finally, he was told by a more sympathetic motel operator that he would like to provide Dr. Foster with a room, but that if he did so he would be run out of town. Thus rebuffed, Dr. Foster continued his drive in the dark over winding mountainous roads. He managed to survive but was forever changed by the experience. Even hundreds of miles from the segregated South, racism remained a constant oppression. This was true for the other individuals in Wilkerson's book, who may have perhaps saved their lives by leaving the deep South but still had to struggle with limited job opportunities, exclusionary zoning policies, and disinvestment in their neighborhoods. Whitehead's and Ellison's fictional accounts also show the limited prospects and dangers faced in the North. Living free on a communal farm in Indiana, the escaped slave Cora thinks she is finally free until a band of locals mounts an attack, murders two of the leaders, and hauls off a number of her compatriots. Ellison's main character too faces disillusionment in New York City when he realizes how much he and other Blacks in Harlem are being used by the "Brotherhood" movement in which he has played a significant part. And the basic premise of Between the World and Me is how Blacks even in recent times have to fear for their lives, most movingly evidenced by the killing of Coates' Howard University classmate, Prince Jones, at the hands of police.

  4. These histories have clear relevance today. Why read fictional works about characters who existed decades-ago? Shouldn’t we focus on the future rather than the ugly past? The fact is, history always matters--whether it is historical fiction, non-fiction, or a fiction that illuminates a particular time and place. Coates' account related in his book makes clear that our country's past and present racial history is in his mind and his actions, as well as the words he speaks with his son. Furthermore, a nuanced and informative aspect of Wilkerson's analysis is her description of the effect of racism, slavery, economic deprivation, and exclusionary legislation on future generations. When African Americans arrived in cities such as Chicago or New York, they came with limited, if any, wealth and probably no capital to speak of. They were forced to live in restricted communities, and because choices were limited to them, landlords could charge higher rents. An opinion in The New York Times Sunday Review by Paul F. Campos (a professor of law at the University of Colorado, Boulder)explains the result today, noting, "The median white household has about 13 times the wealth of the median black household — and much of that wealth is transferred between generations. This remarkable gap helps perpetuate the consequences of centuries of social and economic injustice." Meanwhile, the cities notably disinvested in these neighborhoods. And as other books have pointed out--particularly Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law, government practices actually promoted racial segregation. Thus, Black families have been deprived of the opportunity to build wealth and capital. This doesn't mean it is impossible for individuals to overcome their situations, but it certainly makes it a good deal more difficult--and helps refute the argument that racial separation and slavery are merely vestiges of history, with no role to play in understanding how they still affect our country. True, people are responsible for choices that they make, but that point only goes so far. People and families live with the benefit and the burden of actions from years past, and it is ignorant to pretend that these no longer have an effect or a moral weight to consider.

There are depths and layers to this analysis that I cannot possibly approach in this brief post. The four works that I cite, as notable and brilliant as they are, are merely representative of what is a broad, distinguished body of literature and research on these subjects. Among other books I plan to read to broaden my perspective is James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. All these works, as well as our own experience, remind us that progress comes in both forward and backward steps, and that America’s racial and racist history reflects the best and worst in us.

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