Monday September 20, 2021

Reckoning with history

Last week, US President Joe Biden visited Tulsa, Oklahoma to publicly acknowledge the 100th anniversary of one of the worst massacres of Americans of African descent in US history.

On May 31st a century ago, a white mob descended on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, one of the most prosperous areas in the country inhabited by the Black community. At the end of two days, the entire neighborhood was burned to ashes, 300 or so Black people killed, and thousands moved into internment camps. More than 30 city blocks were razed to the ground. What exactly happened on that day was erased from collective memory. No public discussion or debate ensued, and no one was ever prosecuted.

Exactly a century later, Biden became the first US president to not only acknowledge the atrocities but to also offer a word of sympathy for the descendants of those brutalized, and to the three remaining survivors, aged 101 to 107.

“I have come to fill the silence,” Biden said in an emotional speech, “some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try”, he continued. “Only with truth can come healing.”

Reckoning with the facts of its tortured history has been difficult for many Americans. While no one can blame today’s generation for the injustices of the past, failure to acknowledge these injustices falls squarely on the shoulders of those who choose to ignore or even deny it.

The often-institutionalized injustices against Black Americans that followed for several generations after the abolition of slavery in 1865 not only left a deep scar on the descendants of the formerly enslaved but made it very difficult for them to pull themselves out of poverty. And it continues to affect many in the community to this day. Discriminatory policies, some in clear violation of laws set back the descendants of former slaves for generations. The resulting loss of wealth accumulation among Blacks is estimated in the hundreds of millions, even billions.

When slavery was finally abolished, all enslaved people were promised “40 acres and a mule” so they may find a means of sustenance. Sadly, president Andrew Johnson who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln reneged on this promise. Over four million newly liberated Black persons were pushed overnight out of the plantations on which they lived and worked, to fend for themselves with no means of sustenance. The fact that these people found the courage and the resilience to survive and even thrive is commendable. Former slave owners on the other hand were compensated by the government for the loss of their “property.”

The nightmare for those newly liberated people did not end there. As they became self-sustaining, voting citizens, states particularly in the south passed laws to make sure these new citizens would not exercise their rights, even resorting to violence when they tried. They were forbidden from living alongside white people or accessing many economic opportunities. Under such circumstances, many tried to set up their own communities and economic infrastructure resulting in thriving places such as Greenwood, Tulsa.

For Biden to show the moral courage to acknowledge the atrocities in Tulsa from a century ago is an encouraging step forward for the country. It once again reminds us how one leader can make a profound difference. The acts of Andrew Johnson relegated generations of Black people to poverty and despair out of which they have started to climb only in recent decades. One can only hope the courage shown by Biden will help heal the wounds.

Yet lately there is a move to restrict the gains of recent years. Following the loss by Trump in 2020 elections, about two-thirds of American states have passed laws or are trying to, to restrict voting access, particularly targeting minorities and the poor. In fact, a recent headline in a prominent newspaper read “Is America heading to a place where it can no longer call itself a democracy?”

Preservation of democracy and progress in race relations is only possible with acknowledging the past. Healing can only begin when the well-documented history of the country is acknowledged, including ugly episodes we would rather forget, such as the Tulsa massacre of 1921.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

Website: www.sqshareef.com/blogs