Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson And Why We Need History

There's not much original or insightful I can say about the lack of an indictment yesterday.  I knew it was coming, but still felt horrible last night, similar to the horror I felt the night of George Zimmerman's acquittal.  I came to school today and thought about the young men of color in my classroom and despaired over their safety in a world where a man like Darren Wilson can kill without punishment.  Like a lot of people, I am feeling a whole welter of emotions that I am having a hard time expressing.

Instead of doing the impossible, I'd rather make an observation.  Ferguson, more than anything else in recent years, has convinced me of the importance of history.  Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's acquittal, and even the very residential space of Ferguson only make sense when viewed in historical context.  There is a very long, very bloody, and absolutely horrific history of men of color being killed in public by white men without punishment.  That awful history is tied to another history of turning black men into superhuman creatures in need of destruction, or "demons" in the words of Wilson.  There is a similar history, specifically, of police brutality and police violence and a jury rigged to prevent African Americans from getting justice.  There is another history, of redlining, white flight, and disenfranchisement.  There is also a history of urban unrest protesting injustice and brutality. If you try to understand Ferguson as an isolated event, detached from these histories, you will be woefully misled.

But that's what our news media and conventional wisdom does.  That fits the general tenor of white American life, which refuses to grapple with the past unless it is the usual patriotic narrative of freedom triumphant.  The main paradigm of American society sees individuals as the complete masters of their fate, never beholden to larger social and historical structures.  It is a paradigm born out of our vulgar consumer society, where we are constantly reminded of our choices.  That consumerism does political work too, in that encourages colorblind racism, and the inability for so many white people to understand where inequality comes from, among other blindnesses.  Most white Americans look at the nation's urban landscape and seem to think that the black and brown ghettoes, white subdivisions, and gentrified chic neighborhoods are somehow natural occurrences, like the hills and the rivers.

A lot of the ignorance and foolishness I have seen and heard by those unable to comprehend the reaction to Wilson's acquittal is based around seeing the events in Ferguson outside of any historical context.  "Why are "they" so angry?" is what I keep hearing.  Michael Brown's death and Darren Wilson's apparent profiting from that death with contributions and TV interviews ought to be reason enough, but context also really matters.

My fellow historians, your society needs you.  We need to go out and set things straight.  We need to go out in public and interpret the wonderful if obscure academic histories for the masses, who need to know the context of what they are seeing.  We need to do it because no one else will do it.  The price of inaction is too high.


Oblio said...

HEAR HEAR!!!! Well said.

Anonymous said...


Note also: anger is a no-no in current culture. The whole discourse on why one should not be "angry" (it is a character trait, it seems) needs unraveling.

SabrinaBee said...

Important article WHB. It is true. Every indication shows that we have become too far removed from our history in this country. Many of us are left confused when the system, that was set in place during the worst of our experience here, turns around and bites us on the ass. When, it is only doing what it has been crafted to do, in order to keep us under control.

Our leaders, unlike those like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and others, have only the highlights and most egregious, that they trot out as examples. They have nothing to counter the negative portrayals of blacks, against FBI, statistics, and such. It's quite shameful As is evidenced, there are systems of law that have been put in place, policies, unwritten codes and rules, that ensure that the sort of things that happen now, will continue to happen. Case in point, how the justice system is being used to perpetrate injustices against us.

Zimmerman and Brown's cases show that, what this country celebrates as the greatest system in the world, is in fact, a tool used to justify, and quell disapproval for criminal acts. Ensuring that there is no true equivalent argument when comparing acts of any one group against us, thereby making us appear to be the more dangerous, violent, and illiterate, in the eyes of the world. It also ensures that this projections stays in place, by protecting companies that make their livings off portraying us that way.

No, we need to know, keep being reminded, of where these mindsets came from, how they were shaped, how they were never corrected, and how they continue to influence this country.