When the Trouble Began

14 Oct
Columbus With Tainos

Columbus With Tainos

Hats off to the city of Seattle. Exchanging a celebration of Indigenous Peoples for what ought to be a national day of shame, is an inspiring act of much needed revisionism. The American Exceptionalism, which if I recall correctly, was originally a scholarly term of approbation has now been embraced as
by neoliberal mandarins (not the least of whom is our current president)as great positive attribute.


Utopian as this notion might seem, I would offer that instead of the mania for for the so-called Core and the misguided emphasis on Algebra ought to be supplanted or at least balanced by an American History that reflects the actual events that occurred —warts and all. Certainly the introduction into the educational conversation of Howard Zinn‘s “People’s History” is a good step (this despite the efforts of states like Indiana to ban all Zinn’s works from being taught in that state’s public schools).Maybe someone can show me what the harm is in filling in the details of Columbus and his comrades’s expropriation of already settled lands. Or a slavery hating American icon breeding with his slaves. Or the great Tennessee populist joyfully exterminating various indigenous tribes. And what about the land grab for Mexico’s territories and the self serving mandate of manifest destiny which when there was no more land to “acquire” led to USA’s crusades in Cuba and the Philippines. Setting aside the depredations of US presence in Central America and the rest of the world it might be helpful to the current generations of students to have a coherent presentation on the US adventure in Vietnam.

Looking for photo credit

Looking for photo credit

As I see it, the greatest distortion of American culture is the both the recollections of the Civil Rights Era and the feel good notion that we have come a long way in the march to civil equality (for which the events of Ferguson, Missouri are a vivid countervailing example).

I was watching the documentary The 50 Year Argument and there was a riveting snippet by the great black writer James Baldwin*:

We haven’t invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I have always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old— what you were describing was not me… what you were afraid of was not me, it had to be somebody else. So it had to be something you were afraid of that you invested me with. I learned this because I had to learn it But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is still necessary. Well, its not necessary to me. It must be necessary to you. I give you you problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

If you need a refresher or an introduction to that roiling and volatile period (“Burn, baby, burn”) in the not so far back past, the monograph, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, created by the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition including over a 100 artists response to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.The exhibition honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons,Melvin Edwards,Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and Philip Gusto.

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

And as police dogs, high pressure fire hoses,burned out churches, maimed and murdered Emmett Till and truncheon wielding police are part of the American history, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle edited by Martin Berger, stands as testimony of the barely acknowledged story of depredations suffered by American blacks.Bob Adelman, Fredrick Baldwin, Dr Doris Derby, Benedict Fernandez,Bob Fitch, Matt Herron. Bill Hudson, Danny Lyon. Charles Moore and Chamian Reading

Copyright Bill Hudson

Copyright Bill Hudson

Berger curatorial vision includes and goes beyond the handful of iconic photographs that have some currency in the popular contemporary history. As the book’s’ title suggests goes beyond the accepted record. As the publisher notes,

Martin Berger presents a collection of forgotten photographs that illustrate the action, heroism, and strength of black activists in driving social and legislative change. Freedom Now! highlights the power wielded by black men, women, and children in courthouses, community centers, department stores, political conventions, schools, and streets.

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

A People's History by Howard Zinn

A People’s History by Howard Zinn

Perhaps citizens of the USA ought take a page from the Jews (as unlikely as that maybe) and designate one day a year as a day of atonement—I know the day I would choose.

* Baldwin begins his soliloquy at 11:22 of The 50 Year Argument

Currently reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf)

One Response to “When the Trouble Began”


  1. Addendum #67 | ourmaninboston - October 22, 2014

    […] my haste to fulminate on the quasi-criminality of celebrating Columbus Day, I omitted to reference one very clever and useful book, An Indigenous […]

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