History Lessons

by Dorothy Lazard

originally printed in the Summer 2020 Edition of the OHA News

Early in this pandemic shutdown, a colleague with whom I only had casual conversations asked me what I thought future generations would make of this period in our history. The question caught me up short. It was such a deep, existential question that made clear the gravity of our situation. The threat of wholesale death has a way of focusing the mind. 

After some thought, I told him that it would depend on how thoroughly and truthfully historians, journalists, diarists, filmmakers, and other chroniclers record the times. He expressed anger about the way the government was informing the public about safety measures, testing, and rates of infection. And I assured him that the mishandling of this public health crisis, sadly, was also part of the story. As the filmed police killing of George Floyd aired on repeat, massive anti-racism protests were mounted across the world, and Confederate statues were pulled down, I thought a lot about his question. How will we capture this unprecedented time?

America’s secret is out. The gig is up. Covid-19 has seen to that. For all of America’s boastful declarations of superiority, exceptionalism, and global leadership, this pandemic—and the disorganized, punitive way it’s being handled—has exposed our societal inequities and economic vulnerabilities in a way, and with a velocity, that little else could have. The systemic racism that is the bedrock of this country has been revealed with such clarity that we can no longer ignore it. The Black Lives Matter protests are addressing the much-older, equally-urgent virus of American racism. Our country is being remade right before our eyes, convulsing with change for better and worse. Now is the time for us to write a new narrative. 

People who want to fight racism in America are now looking for ways to contribute to the anti-racist movement. One way is to broaden our views of history. As students and purveyors of history, we are obliged to confront it with open eyes and a curious mind. It’s time for us to focus not only on “what happened,” but why injustices happen, who benefits from them, and what impact prejudice and injustice have on us all. In this climate of racial violence, heated debates about heritage, virulent misinformation campaigns and racial profiling, our challenge today is to provide our readers with fresh, fact-based accounts of our shared history. 

We need to reconsider the dominant American narrative and reposition the frame. With our investigative and literary talents come a responsibility to reflect the times in which we live. Those reflections would be most useful to future generations if lay historians and professional historians alike broaden the narrative, consider the “other,” and challenge the dominant narrative out of which white supremacy, Manifest Destiny, and nativism grew. Our willingness to discover and share the complex histories of our city, state, and country will help ease some of the injury that too many of our fellow citizens endure every day.

Earlier this year, I sat for a public radio interview in which I spoke about the responsibilities of managing a history collection. My conversation sparked a tough memory which I did not share with the journalist at the time. By the time I was ten, I had learned that there was a dominant narrative in our country that had nothing to do with me, the people I came from, or the life we lived. At San Francisco State, I found myself confronting not only invisibility, but also misrepresentation, misinformation, and stereotypes. In my Teaching Writing class, the professor, in explaining to the class why Black people don’t speak standard English, said: “Black people don’t understand standard English.” I was mortified. Not only at this heaping turd of misinformation, but at the confidence with which she shared it. Who told her that? Had she read it in a book? And how many white people believed this? It wasn’t my way to challenge my professors at the time, but I felt, as the only African American in the class, that I had to speak up. This declaration was too egregious not to bat down.

“That’s not true,” I said. “What you said is not right. Of course, we understand standard English. I understand you. We consume too much mainstream television, talk to too many people in the business world, not to comprehend standard English.”

The teacher stood in front of the class, looking a bit stunned. I was also stunned when she confessed to the class that she had been telling her students this for years. To her credit, she asked me to tell her and the class more, and I, while no linguist, explained code switching. 

I learned a hard lesson that day that continues to bewilder me more than 40 years later: I realized that a white person can grow up, go to college, become an employed, voting, tax-paying citizen, live to a ripe old age, and die without knowing a single thing about me or any other Black person. I realized that there was a dominant narrative in this country. Blacks, who were the country’s original “essential workers,” have never been seen as an essential part of its historical narrative. That’s only begun to shift in recent decades, thanks to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, the Third World Liberation Front that changed college curricula to be more diverse, and writers and historians like John Hope Franklin whose scholarship was of undeniable national value.

The more difficult task for allies is to enter into conversation with people of different backgrounds to learn about their experiences of living as the “other” in America. These conversations are hard because they force us to pull our blinders off and examine not only the inequities in our society, but also the ways in which we individually contribute to those abuses in our everyday lives. It’s not enough to be “not racist;” our society needs people to be consciously and actively antiracist: to speak out when you hear someone saying something you know to be racist. To be truly antiracist, our allies must challenge racism in their classrooms, in their workplaces, at their dinner tables, at the malls, and the  countless places where racism occurs. For too long white people have stood witness to verbal slights, racial confrontations, or police harassment and violence, yet slip into a bewildered silence or offer up an innocuous “oh, that’s so sad” from the sidelines. We don’t need white sympathy. In this fight we need their allegiance, empathy, and understanding. We need their commitment to develop skills to discuss and confront systemic racism. 

True allies can appreciate that the loss of a Black life is a loss to all of us, not just to Black people. True allies don’t have to ask how I feel when yet another Black person is killed, harassed, unjustly convicted. Fighting racism is not solely the responsibility of those of us subjected to it, but also the charge of people who benefit, consciously and unconsciously, from it. Silence is compliance.

Today the COVID19 pandemic and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests are forcing us to take a hard look at our values, our interactions with each other, and our representations of what we witness. As I think again about my colleague’s question of how we will record this time, I recognize there is power and a heavy responsibility that comes with disseminating history. Imagine what our society would feel like if we worked to recalibrate the American narrative to include full-bodied, inclusive histories. If we actually saw each other, listened to each other, gave each other the respect and regard that we expect for ourselves. Honestly confronting today's complicated, tragic, unprecedented events is the only way this society will become what it has claimed to be--fair, just, welcoming. It is hard work, but it’s work that must be done if we are to turn that American Dream from fable to reality.