By Mickey Gomez, Elevate Maryland
Growing up, what I learned about American history was – to put it kindly – sporadic. It depended on the teacher, on the grade, on the book, but inevitably we’d start the year doing a minute-by-minute reenactment of the Revolutionary War and end up sprinting through everything from 1940 onward.
I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to recognize that almost everything I was taught about slavery in the United States was, at best, white-washed in every possible meaning of the word. Some of it was flat-out wrong, perpetuating myths. Black history was supplemental, not a focus (even during Black History month, and in many ways especially during Black History month).
We learned about Rosa Parks, who sat on a bus because she was weary and unintentionally sparked a movement. Only that’s not what happened.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks
We learned about celebrated jazz singer Billie Holiday, but not about the song she made famous, “Strange Fruit”:
“You’ve got to understand how shocking this song was at the time. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said that to me. You know, this was not a time when there were political pop songs. You know, the top song at the time is called ‘P.S. I Love You.’ And to have an African American woman standing in front of a white audience singing a song against white supremacy and its violence was viscerally shocking at that moment.” – Excerpt from NPR’s Throughline
We didn’t learn about the role Chief of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger played in destroying Holiday’s life. Identified by his peers in the 1920s as an overt racist, Anslinger set out on a mission to keep Holiday from performing “Strange Fruit”. Citing her addiction to illegal drugs – a direct consequence of the horrors she endured in her youth – he spied on her, stalked her, harassed her, planted evidence, jailed her numerous times, and ultimately caused her death.
“Dubbed ‘Black Wall Street’ due its affluent black residents, the Greenwood neighborhood of Oklahoma, where the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre took place, was a hub of Black success featuring Black-owned homes and establishments, including banks, restaurants, and hotels, in a community that included accomplished lawyers, doctors, and dentists. It was one of a few predominantly Black areas that thrived economically after the end of the Civil War and into the 20th century, when racial discrimination was the order of the day.” – Shammara Lawrence for Teen Vogue
Until one day in 1921 when a young black man was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator (one account states that he stepped on her foot), which was all it took for white residents to utterly destroy Greenwood. Over a 24 hour period, rioting white people – supported by local and government forces – murdered 300 black people, charred and ruined 35 city blocks, and left 10,000 people homeless.
That wasn’t in any of my history books.
Neither was the concept of Redlining, which I’ve subsequently learned was perpetrated by our own federal government. From this interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law:
He [Rothstein] notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.
To put it simply: The only way that developers could get FHA funding was by committing to never sell a home to a black person. In fact, developers were required to place a clause in home deeds saying that the house could not subsequently be sold to a black person. Instead of paying cash in full for a home, war veterans were able to access the GI Bill to finance a home purchase using a mortgage, and the subsidies were so good they’d spend less on mortgages than they would on rent. Basically it was a wealth generating exercise, one that helped white people build financial equity, and to bequeath that wealth to their children. Black people and people of color were not allowed to access this.
This was also not in my history books.
In retrospect, it’s terrifying how easily entire stories and narratives were simply glossed over or left out of our school’s history books.
I’m doing what I can to learn now. I invite fellow white people to join me.
It’s a process – it’s not something that happens overnight – but it’s critical to the future of our country, at least the one that I’d like to see, the one I’d like to leave to future generations, the one that focuses on shared humanity and compassion over the color of a person’s skin. The one that recognizes what we’ve done to people of color – what we’re still doing to people of color – and finally makes amends.
It’s overly simplistic to suggest that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but it’s true. In my case, it wasn’t about *willfully* not learning, it was about the systematic and intentional repression of facts that reflect poorly on white people.
Now that I realize that happened – that schoolbooks are fallible, that what we learned was only the very tip of the iceberg – it’s entirely on me moving forward. It’s not on people of color to explain things to me. I welcome their voices and insights and ideas and solutions and I will be present for their stories, but it is not their job to bring me up to speed on the racism they’ve been experiencing here in the United States for 400 years and counting.
I believe that we – as a country – are better than this.
I will make mistakes on this journey. I may feel like a racist. I may be called a racist. I will want to be defensive. Instead, I will learn from each of these experiences and move on. I will become an ally. I don’t have answers – I barely even know the questions yet. But I will continue on this journey for racial equity because it’s the right thing to do.
And because it’s long overdue.
Maybe one day we can count on our educational system to teach the actual history of all of the people of the United States.
Until that day comes, here are some resources to begin – or to continue – our collective journey. I hope to meet you along the way.
The 1619 Project
“The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
10 Books About Race To Read Instead Of Asking A Person Of Color To Explain Things To You
“If you really want to be a better ally, if you really want to be a on the front-lines in the war against racism and discrimination in the United States, you have to take the initiative to educate yourself. It isn’t up to people of color to inform or reform white people.
As ‘White people, stop asking us to education about racism,’ a collective piece from an African American voice on Medium, so clearly explains, ‘Don’t ask us to provide the information for you. Instead, participate in your own education. We’ve already given you enough of our free labor. Don’t ask us for any more.'”
- ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’ by Ijeoma Oluo
- ‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
- ‘Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower’ by Brittney Cooper
- ‘An African American and Latinx History of the United States’ by Paul Ortiz
- ‘The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority’ by Ellen D. Wu
- ‘Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race’ by Debby Irving
- ‘This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror’ by Moustafa Bayoumi
- ‘The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy’ by Andrea Flynn, Susuan R. Holmberg, Dorian T. Warren, and Felicia J. Wong
- ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race’ by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- ‘Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism’ by Safiya Umoja Noble
Other Recommended Reading:
- ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi
- ‘Stamped from the Beginning’ by Ibram X. Kendi
- ‘The Color of Law’ by Richard Rothstein
Action Steps for Incremental Change
“Dear fellow white people: Here’s what to do when you’re called racist.”