The accounting of history

For White America, the accounting of history is all assets and no liabilities. Iowa’s Steve King never stops saying that the profits on America’s balance sheet all belong to white people because, over hundreds of years, it was white people who tamed a brown continent and brought “civilization” to it. Ask White America about Confederate history and you will hear that the Lost Cause is a crucial part of American history and American identity. To take down rebel monuments is to strike assets off White America’s ledgers.

The Western Canon, still taught in some universities, is a sort of Western/white supremacist version of world history and culture. It originally consisted of almost exclusively Greek, Roman, and Christian sources. Ask a white Evangelical Christian, who now only grudgingly acknowledges the “Judeo” part of our newly-reformulated “Judeo-Christian” culture, and you’ll hear that the biblical kingdoms of “Samaria” and “Judea” should be reserved for overwhelmingly European settlers under Israel’s Law of Return, and that Palestinians should remain under perpetual occupation. There’s a thick thread of racism running through all of Western history and culture.

But when it comes to reparations for slavery, White America has a completely different accounting scheme — a scheme in which all debts are automatically cancelled. In this scheme, since all contributions by non-whites are negligible, and their presence so unwanted, their claims on American history are nothing but petty annoyances. If someone wronged you, your parents, your grandparents — even every generation of your ancestors — well, too bad, it’s not our fault. Get over it. No debts were incurred. And no debts need be paid after such a long time.

For a people who don’t believe in a free lunch — not even for poor children — it is curious that White Americans so resolutely refuse to pay their debts. And as a nation we have some pretty big ones — colonialism, genocide, territorial expropriation, slavery, and centuries of racism. In the history of American Capitalism, it was slavery that set the Confederate economy in motion. And it was slavery that underpinned the cotton trade upon which the Northern textile industries were based. Thus, even New England cities — under Northern Capitalism — became rich from slavery. Today White America, South and North, wring their hands over the complexity of the accounting. But regardless of the unwillingness of the debtor to pay the debt, the interest on our Original Sin just keeps accruing.

In the orthodox [White] re-telling of American history, Our good fortune simply fell off a truck. We were lucky enough, and smart enough, to simply scoop it up for ourselves. The triumphalist says: I got mine; the hell with the rest of you. Yet, whether by lying to ourselves about our history or by the sociopathic glorification of it, White America knows full well what it has stolen. And for those who recognize the stolen merchandise as theirs, they know what crimes were committed and that payment is due. That payment must consist of not only a monetary value but a moral accounting.

As much as Republicans and Centrist Democrats would like race to simply go away, a national discussion about reparations — like racism itself — is long overdue. It is not surprising that we are hearing about reparations in the 2020 presidential campaign from both candidates of color and several white Democrats. Ta-Nihisi Coates recently penned a long “Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic, and in it he makes the case, mentioning H.R.40, a bill sponsored in the last legislative session by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Jr., “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.”

Like a Truth and Reconciliation process, a reparations commission would require White America to come to grips with our real history. The questions are complex, the solutions even more so. How do we make amends for crimes committed by past generations that are repeated and still resonate today? Who would all the recipients of reparations be, and what forms would reparations consist of? Following the implementation of reparations, how could we determine if they were lifting up those who needed them the most?

But Coates sums up a reparations commission’s greatest good: “No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Our fragile democracy cannot survive the shameful present reality of the two Americas the Kerner Commission predicted over fifty years ago. Apologies are due, and debts must be acknowledged and paid. Those who have suffered the most must be lifted up and made whole.

This nation must be made whole.

Words matter

With conditions for ICE prisoners deteriorating by the minute, Conservatives lost their minds when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called ICE’s facilities for caging children as young as 4 months of age by their proper name — concentration camps. “I don’t use those words lightly. I don’t use those words to just throw bombs. I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is,” she said. “A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist, and it’s very difficult to say that.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks followed an announcement that ICE now has plans to use Fort Sill, a former Japanese “internment” camp in Oklahoma, to “detain” migrant children. ICE operates 168 camps in 23 states for migrant children alone. According to the Densho Encyclopedia which documents this shameful chapter of American history, Fort Sill housed Japanese-American prisoners who “sometimes lived in 100-degree weather with no escape from the hot temperatures. Guard towers “were equipped with 30-caliber machine guns, shotguns, and searchlights. […] On May 13, 1942, a mentally ill internee was shot dead by guards who claimed that he was trying to escape.” Even with air-conditioning Fort Sill will still be a concentration camp, not an “internment” or “detention center” for a new batch of non-white prisoners.

Liz Cheney, daughter of war criminal Dick Cheney, tweeted: “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”

Apparently not understanding the meaning of “Never Again!” Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer, piled on as well. In a press statement, Gottheimer said, “the comparison is cruel and disrespectful to the six million who were murdered in the Holocaust, including members of my own family. Concentration camps were places where Jews and others were enslaved, tortured, and then sent to gas chambers to be murdered.”

But not so fast. Sure, Republicans and their weak-kneed Democratic allies get a bit peeved when critics of immigration policy point to how many of Trump’s policies had precedents in the Third Reich. A convenient dismissal is that it “disrespects” Holocaust survivors. But the critics have a point — particularly when a neo-fascist, advised and adored by white supremacists, could so easily and quickly convert detention camps into death camps. It’s happened before.

The Jewish Virtual Library notes that the Nazis operated as many as 15,000 collection, labor, and transit camps, collection points, and ghettos. Of these only a fraction were extermination (or death) camps. Even Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died, was not technically an extermination camp — the Nazis called it a “displaced persons camp” — although its prisoners were housed in unspeakable conditions which led to tens of thousands of deaths. And Theresienstadt — where Nazi propagandists portrayed prisoners as practically on vacation — this too was a concentration camp.

Consider, too, the definition found in the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “concentration camp: internment centre for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order.” This definition fits precisely the hundreds of thousands of prisoners Trump, by “executive decree,” has placed in American concentration camps — just as the definition applies to the 1.5 million Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps or an unknown number of gay men in Chechen concentration camps.

A world in which facts are disputed and words no longer have any meaning is a dangerous, Orwellian nightmare. Words matter. If the use of “concentration camp” induces a collective meltdown from Trump defenders, then the use of euphemisms like “intern” and “detention” should as well. Guatemalan and Honduran child “interns” are not writing Python code for Google or collecting business contacts at hedge funds. No mentally competent person would say these kids have been “detained,” as in bad traffic or by a last-minute telephone call.

Let’s stop lying to ourselves. These children are prisoners in a rapidly-expanding network of cruelly-administered American concentration camps.

Blue State Bigotry

Massachusetts liberals like to think of our state as the home of Camelot and the heart of Abolition, all while smugly bashing Confederate monuments in the South. But our own history and our own flag are just as shameful as those in the former Confederate States of America.

If you haven’t looked closely, both the Massachusetts seal and the state flag feature a belt modeled after one worn by Wampanoag Chief Metacomet (beheaded by Puritans) and a white artist’s conception of Wampanoag Chief Ousamequin (Massasoit) standing in submission beneath the sword of Miles Standish. A shortened version of a Latin aphorism — manus haec inimica tyrannis ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (this hand, an enemy to tyrants, seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty) — accompanies the image, conflating Native Americans with tyranny.

The original version of the seal bears no trace of tyrants or Miles Standish, but instead depicts a naked man with a cartoon bubble saying “come over and help us.” For a few short years around the time of American Independence the seal depicted a white man holding the Magna Carta and a sword, after which both versions were combined into what is more-or-less today’s seal. The history of the seal thus charts an arc from a patronizing White Man’s Burden to triumphant White domination. The new seal is one of many images throughout the United States depicting the defeat and humiliation of Native Americans, such as this WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

In order to better understand the seal and its symbols, it may help to review some of the Massachusetts history you never learned in school.

The Puritans, named for their intent to “purify” Protestantism of Catholic influences, arrived in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 in a ship owned by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, the Mayflower, accompanied by an English-born Dutch mercenary named Miles Standish. Many regarded this group of religious zealots as quite extreme, even for England in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. Religion certainly played a part in the Puritan’s appearance in the New World; but colonial avarice was what brought them to it.

Upon their arrival, the Puritans swore allegiance to the English King, James (for whom a version of the Protestant bible is named) and signed the Mayflower Compact, “having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia [the Hudson Valley, now in New York].” With supplies running low and winter approaching, they never made it to the Hudson Valley and instead established the “Plimoth” colony.

Forget the communal First Thanksgiving potluck you learned about in school. It was war against brown people from the moment the Puritans arrived. Miles Standish had a well-earned reputation, even among some of the colonists, for brutality and slaughter of Native Americans. Hartman Deetz, of the Wampanoag Nation, notes that in 1623 Standish committed “one of the first recorded egregious murders of native people by colonists in north America. […] the murder of a man, Pecksuot, just south of Boston. Standish […] lured him into a house under the premise that they were going to conduct trade. And when he got into the house, they barred the doors, and he stabbed [Pecksuot] through the heart with his own knife.” Standish also killed and beheaded another warrior named Wituwamat, slaughtered his family, and brought Wituwamat’s head back to Plymouth and displayed it on a wooden pike.

In New England the genocide and enslavement of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans are bound together in a history that began almost simultaneously.

In 1633, European slave-hunters came to Southern New England to look for Native Americans to press into slavery. Two of them were killed by the Pequot and the Puritans demanded that the killers be turned over for colonial justice. The Pequots refused. In May of 1637 English troops set fire to a Pequot village near Mystic River in Connecticut killing 700 women, children, and elderly; the survivors were enslaved. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, reported, “It was a fearful sight to see them [Pequots] thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them […]”

In 1638, the Puritans began trafficking enslaved survivors of the decimated Pequot nation, trading them for African slaves from the West Indies. Historian James Drake notes that “the war produced hundreds of Indian refugees, who lived as vagabonds within or on the edges of New England towns.” Slavery “[…] helped satisfy the dilemma of what to “do” with them.”

It is understandable that a flag consisting of a subservient Native American, a colonial mercenary’s sword hanging over his head, and a Latin phrase insinuating that he is a tyrant would surely offend people in the 21st Century. More importantly, the sentiments on the seal and flag no longer represent the aspirations of a 21st Century democracy.

For this reason there are currently two resolutions in the Massachusetts legislature, both entitled “Resolve providing for the creation of a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the Commonwealth” — a House version, H.2776, sponsored by Reps. Lindsay N. Sabadosa and Nika C. Elugardo; and S.1877, sponsored by Senator Jason M. Lewis. Rep. Sabadosa told WGBH that “the legislation does not spell out what we want to change the seal and logo to, […] It just says that we need to put together a commission really composed of native voices so that we can find a symbol that represents the values of Massachusetts that’s true to our history but is also respectful at the same time.”

The current state seal was created in 1908 — eighteen years before the Wounded Knee Massacre and sixteen years before Native Americans were given American citizenship. 1908 was not a time of great sensitivity to Native Americans, who were not even regarded as fellow citizens when the “new” seal was created.

In parallel with calls to change the state flag, there is also a national movement to end the use of “Indian mascots” on school sports teams. Maine just became the first state in the nation to throw racist mascots into the dust bin of history. Nationally, over 2000 schools have mascots with names like Warriors (#1), Indians (#2), Raiders, Braves, Chiefs, Redskins, Redmen, Savages, Squaws, Shaman, or specific tribal names — like the Braintree Wamps (named for the Wampanoag).

As with the cigar store Indian, Native Americans have been frequently de-humanized and reduced to avatars and mascots for commercial products — on the same low level as the Geico gecko or the Aflac duck. And yet — here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century! — the Land o’ Lakes maiden still serves alongside Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima as a racist mascot for corporate America.

But corporate exploitation just echoes the widespread racism in society. Caricatures of Native Americans join the lawn jockey, the sleepy Mexican, Sambo, Chief Wahoo, mammies, Golliwogs, tar babies, pickaninnies, hooked-nosed Jews and Arabs, squinting Asians, and countless racist depictions of non-white people on White America’s lawns and curio shelves. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) created a poster to try to convey to White America how racist the Cleveland Indian mascot was — but the lesson was apparently too difficult, or too subtle, to comprehend.

On June 25th, 2019 the Massachusetts legislature will conduct joint hearings on two bills prohibiting the use of racist mascots. House bill H.443 sponsored by Reps. Nika C. Elugardo and Tami L. Gouveia joins Senate bill S.247 sponsored by Senator Joanne M. Comerford in charting a path for the phase-out of offensive mascots without imposing financial hardships on the schools that have them. Local schools include: the Barnstable Red Raiders; the Braintree Wamps; the Bristol Aggie Chieftains; the Dartmouth Indians; and the Middleborough Sachems.

Closer to home, the Dartmouth Schools don’t understand how redface and caricaturing Native Americans actually undermines their own anti-discrimination, anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies: “The school system shall establish and maintain an atmosphere in which all persons can develop attitudes and skills for effective cooperative living in our culturally diverse society.”

Unless, of course, you go on Twitter.

A frequent justification for not retiring Native Indian mascots is that schools are somehow honoring Native Americans rather than simply turning them into cartoons. Dartmouth High School’s mascot is the “Indian,” patterned after Dartmouth (NH) College’s. The nickname “Big Green” remains the same for both schools, and the green letter “D” is still exactly the same. But in 1974 the College decided it was time for their racist mascot to go. Not so for the eponymous high school.

A number of Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda, and the Nipmuc nation, reject mascots outright. In Oregon one school district negotiated with a tribal council to set parameters for the use of tribal imagery. In Utah a tribal council took to social media to slam a parody of a tribal dance done by cheerleaders with wigs on a basketball court. Tribes are being consulted, or at least being heard, in other states.

Why not Massachusetts?

In 2005, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) looked at offensive mascots, 14 schools decided to drop them altogether, 19 were cited for abusive names and imagery, and many were prohibited from participating in tournaments. Several schools which previously used the name “Indians” changed them to: the Arkansas Red Wolves, Indiana Crimson Hawks, McMurry War Hawks, Midwestern State Mustangs, Newberry College Wolves, and so on. Change can be easily, and quickly, accomplished.

It is not known if the Dartmouth High School Student Manual’s “respect” rationale for continuing to use the “Indian” mascot was based on approval from local tribal councils or if they were ever consulted. The School Committee controls the mascot logo as if they held a copyright on Native Americans. I emailed and then followed-up with a call to Dr. Bonnie Gifford, Dartmouth’s Superintendent of Schools, passing along several questions to her assistant. But as of publication time I have not received a reply. Likewise, emails to every member of the town School Committee have gone unanswered.

When it comes to respecting or honoring tribes, “honor” is not a verb white people get to define. Tim Giago, an Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota, has his own definition:

“If the white race wants to honor Native Americans, start by honoring our treaties.”

“And please, please keep in mind; there is no difference between wearing Blackface than there is in wearing “Redface.”

The Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda supports both the flag and seal and mascot legislation. It is also supported by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

It’s 2019, people! Time’s up for lawn jockies, mammies, and blackface. Time’s also up for racist mascots and redface. Please call your representatives in both the House and Senate to support both Native American-related bills now in the Massachusetts legislature.