Archive for the ‘History’ Category

It’s Time to Rethink Thanksgiving

December 3, 2022

I’m changing my mind about Thanksgiving. I’ve totally enjoyed the annual family-and-friends pig-out; the cooking, sometimes communal, as much as the overeating, which was guilt-free—based, as we learned in grade school, on a magical First Thanksgiving in 1621, featuring grateful Pilgrims and their guests, the Indians, sharing the harvest bounty of the land they now shared.

The First Thanksgiving | Creative Commons

But, really, how can it feel guilt-free? Apparently there was some kind of harvest meal that year, and some of the local people, the Wampanoags, were in attendance, but the Pilgrims never saw them as fellow people, and soon enough were robbing, fighting, capturing and enslaving or killing them. Given the whole long history of Europeans’ and then white Americans’ relations to the people who were here first—right down to a current Supreme Court case that has the potential to strip them of their status as nations in the US—it seems to me it would feel more natural to observe the fourth Thursday in November as a day of mourning for all the indigenous people we white people have killed or displaced or enslaved—not to mention lied to, cheated or outright robbed—to secure this land and its bounty for ourselves. Or, if mourning would be hypocritical (they weren’t our people, after all), maybe a day of atonement for those sins. Or, at the very least, a day of reckoning, of somber acknowledgement of what we have done and are still doing.

But too many white people seem unable even to admit, much less take responsibility for what we have done: Our horrendous and unrelenting violence and mendacity toward indigenous people and everyone else we deem to be nonwhite. All that we owe them in reparations for what we have not stopped doing yet. Instead, any attempt to redress the balance, any reparative policy is seen as discriminating against whites. If we don’t have it all, don’t own and control everything, don’t get all the advantages of white supremacy all the time, we throw a tantrum.

Why are so many white people always ready to feel victimized? It’s a hair-trigger over an absolute: we seem to believe that either we have it all or we lose it all; are replaced.

It’s completely crazy.


Why Did White Tulsa Burn Down Black Tulsa?

June 15, 2021

Before its recent centennial, I hadn’t been particularly aware of the Tulsa Massacre, or of the many other, similar events that went way beyond lynching and have been called, I think justifiably, pogroms. Now I know that my ignorance was by design, and Tulsa is part of my consciousness of the long history of white aggression in America against people of color. And, once again, I wonder why we white people seem never to have been able to let other people be.

In case the story doesn’t ring a bell, a quick recap: According to The New York Times, “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed.” a hapless Black teenage boy apparently stumbled and grabbed the arm of the white teenage girl operating an elevator; black men came out with guns to defend the jailed boy from gathering whites (jailed black people could be dragged out and lynched); a shot was fired.

That same night, white Tulsans destroyed almost the entire 35-block Black Tulsa business and residential district known as Greenwood: up to 300 people killed, almost 1500 homes burned or looted; 8-10,000 left homeless, 6,000 held in camps. In today’s dollars, close to $30 million in property damage; untold millions in future Black generational wealth gone up in smoke. 

The smoking ruins of the Dunbar School.

Is there in this account a provocation sufficient to explain that paroxysm of white rage? Or was, as the Times suggests, white resentment of Black success “one factor” behind it? 

Or, I would ask, were white people simply completely unable to accept Black success?


Teddy Roosevelt Had Donald Trump’s Number

August 28, 2016

President_T. Roosevelt_-_Pach_Bros President Theodore Roosevelt

“Of all corruption, the most far-reaching for evil is that which hides itself behind the mask of furious demagoguery, seeking to arouse and to pander to the basest passions of mankind.”

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped) Wannabe President Donald Trump

TR disliked windbags, fakers, demagogues and phonies in general. His Trump was William Jennings Bryan–politician, famous orator, later infamous for the Scopes Trial–who in 1908, Roosevelt’s last year in office, was running for President against William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor. In a long letter, TR told Bryan what he thought of him. (Cited in The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley.) (Trump photo credit Michael Vadon.)

Democracy vs. Theocracy: the Kentucky Marriage License Contretemps

September 6, 2015

What’s really at stake when a Kentucky county clerk cites “God’s authority” for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples—putting that authority above the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s order and her own sworn oath to uphold the laws of the state of Kentucky—and is willing to go to jail for her stand?

It’s striking that ordinary people on both sides of the issue apparently have no idea. Nor do Rand Paul or Ted Cruz—who, as U.S. Senators and Presidential candidates, ought to know better.

The clerk, Kim Davis, and her supporters see it as a First Amendment issue: according to a fellow clerk, “a lot of people … died for that right, and I think we should we able to exercise it.” Rand Paul says it’s “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties.” Ted Cruz asks “every Believer, every Constitutionalist, every lover of liberty to stand with Kim Davis.”


But the First Amendment only guarantees your right to hold your personal religious beliefs and personally express them; it doesn’t guarantee your right to impose your beliefs on others. As an elected, sworn civil servant, the clerk is obliged to carry out the law—in this case, by issuing marriage licenses to all qualified applicants, including gay ones.

On the other side, according to the New York Times, “Ms. Davis’s critics, many of whom appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, argued that she personified a dated approach to marriage.” Also, as one said, “Christianity … supports love in all ways, so it seems kind of contradictory that they’re out here … discriminating.”

But this case has no more to do with progress, love, or discrimination than it does with the exercise of personal First Amendment rights. It’s about the rule of civil law in a democracy.

No less a founding father than Thomas Jefferson wrote, in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the words that have been used to set legal precedent in this area: while it would be a “dangerous fallacy” for the state to “restrain the profession or propagation of principles,” it is time for the state “to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”

Or, as Judge David L. Bunning of Federal District Court, who has ruled three times against Davis’s position, put it: “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.”

In this case, “peace and good order” means issuing licenses as the law directs; the “problems” caused by refusing to do so amount, essentially, to anarchy. And if we held the “authority of God” above that of the Constitution, we’d be living in a theocracy, not a democracy.

Since Ms. Davis refuses either to comply or resign, the law, in the form of Judge Bunning, has sent her to jail. That may make her a martyr to all those Christians who seem to think they’d rather live in a theocracy. To them, I would say, take a good look at theocracy in action: the Islamic State.

The Elephant in Our (History) Room

July 25, 2014

Maybe the only way history becomes meaningful to anyone is when it illuminates your own experience, and vice versa. As a white person who was around for the Civil Rights Movement and played a very small role in it, I thought I understood something about the realities of our bloody history.

There was, of course, the one great peaceful moment: the 1963 March on Washington. I rode down from Boston overnight in the vast cavalcade of buses streaming south to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

March on Washington, 1963

March on Washington, 1963

The following year, I picketed the Boston School Committee over segregation and was escorted to safety when Southies arrived in force. I was acutely aware of the violence faced by the people my own age who went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, from fire hoses and police dogs to murders and bombings. (The guy who pulled me off the Boston picket line had just returned from Mississippi.)

All of which counts for nothing. In fact, I understood very little either of the realities of the black experience in America or of the extent to which the violence of racism has shaped and warped us and our culture. Two excellent, compulsively readable books have made that plain: Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 by Brenda Wineapple (2013),

Ecstatic Nation

and The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010).

The Warmth of Other Suns

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