Safeguarding Black History
Two racist officials of the Hudson, Ohio, Memorial Day celebration tried to sabotage a Black history message being delivered by the keynote speaker during a remembrance ceremony this year. The speaker, a white retired Army colonel, had his mic cut off by the two racists when he began to describe how Memorial Day ceremonies were begun by African Americans to honor Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. But the plot backfired when the colonel continued to speak without the aid of the sound system and the scheme to silence him was made public.
We should not be shocked by unrelenting instances of racists engaging in cancel culture aimed against people of African descent. Since the 15th century, there have been concerted efforts to bend or obliterate Black history. The erasures of the histories of Black people, as is practiced today, began in the 17th century. But the result is the destruction of histories as far back as the dawn of civilization.
Egyptian history has been so distorted that many Americans believe the ancient Nile Valley civilization existed in Europe. Cinemas that portrayed Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Yul Brenner as the pharaoh Ramesses gave distinctly Caucasian flavoring to the history of a civilization that existed for thousands of years on the African continent.
Typically, in neither the churches nor schools of America is it taught that some Roman Catholic popes were African. Pope Victor I and Pope Miltiades were born in Africa, and Pope Gelasius I was of African descent and born either in Rome or Tunisia.
There were Roman emperors who were African as well. Septimius Severus, Clodius Albinus, Macrinus and Aemilianus were all born in Africa. These facts make it difficult to deny the part Africa played in ancient history. But this generally is not taught in our history classes.
Understanding why there are these gaps in what we know of history is a key component of being able to think critically about race in America. There is an old tradition, exemplified by the ancient Roman practice of Damnatio memoriae, of erasing people from memory. This was a method where those in power declared their enemies to be enemies of the social order. Once these targets were characterized in this way, their memories were damned and erased from the public record and their assets were seized.
Centuries after the demise of the ancient world, when Renaissance Europe began interacting with people of color, the memories of the latter began to be damned and the histories of their greatness erased as their assets were seized by white supremacists.
In a world order constructed with a built-in bias against people of color, it would not do to honor the achievements of Africans and their descendants. That would upset the narrative of white supremacy. To this day, many white Americas continue to “damn” Black folk as unwanted persons and enemies of the social order. These white Americans want to erase the memories of our accomplishments and seize our assets.
White supremacists in America do not want schoolchildren to learn about the Afro Mexicans and their descendants who were among the first non-indigenous settlers of California and who established communities that grew into the cities of San Jose, Monterey, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But once California was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War, the California constitutional convention of 1849 disenfranchised Indians and descendants of Africans who also were prohibited from testifying in court cases involving whites.
Anyone who is interested in Civil War history must go the extra mile to learn that there were seven Black cavalry units in that conflict, and that by the time Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Black soldiers in the Union forces outnumbered all the Confederate soldiers remaining in the Southern army.
Prior to emancipation, the accomplishments of Black folk were denied in order to uphold the myth of white supremacy as a justification for chattel slavery. After freedom came, the achievements of Black folk were hidden, denied or even destroyed – as in the case of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre – in order to distort reality and create a false narrative that would ensure white privilege.
By obliterating Black history and bending the historical narrative to support the argument that all things good came from white people and nothing good came from people of color, the conception of the belief in white meritocracy was established, which ties in directly with the notions of white supremacy and white privilege.
While meritocracy is a social system in which advancement in society is based on an individual’s capabilities and merits rather than based on family, wealth or social background, white meritocracy assigns merit to whiteness. And advancement in society, in the most general terms, is based primarily upon a person’s perceived race coupled with the false narrative that white people are the only ones who created anything of value and therefore are entitled to all things of value. This privilege is afforded to all white people regardless of their capabilities or individual merit, and conversely, is denied to all people of color.
Because of the notion of white meritocracy, racists feel entitled to their white privilege. This is why it makes sense that the two Hudson, Ohio, racist Memorial Day officials would want to kill the mic when a truth about Black history was being spoken.
The more we know about the true histories of the world, including Black history, the better equipped we are to defend all people against the ravages of racial bias and injustice that are propped up by white meritocracy, white supremacy and white privilege. Critical Race Theory simply says: Know the truth. Speak the truth. Teach the Truth.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/