The angry buzzing of hornets whose hive has been disturbed marks what passes for civil discourse in these days of our lives.
One thinks of Joan Rivers and her comedic schtick, “Can we talk here?” But in these days, the answer is no, <insert your favorite swear word> no, <insert a worse one> no, we don’t talk, we shout you down to shut you up. A few even go further than shouts.
The metaphor of a hornet’s nest is an apt one. All it takes is one throw of a stone and all hell breaks loose, which is what happened in the summer of 2020 when a conservative activist by the name of Christopher Rufo chanced upon an obscure academic theory known as Critical Race Theory and seized it as a weapon to be deployed on the favorite jousting field of conservatives, the Fox News Channel.
That fed into the erasing-history hysteria over taking down monuments to a failed insurrection. Even now, social media is filled with the rants of conserva <cough, cough> white supremacists about erasing history.
No one wants to erase history. But history is not what people think it is. Herodotus is called the Father of History, not because of his meticulously reporting of the facts of past events, but because he invented the science of history, the science that demands an interpretation of past events so that the living can understand what happened before they dropped upon the Earth and how that shapes the times they live in.
No one can erase history, but they can suppress its telling to new generations. Taking down Confederate monuments will not rub out the men who fought for an economic system of oppression, who fought to keep an enslaved class of people exploited in many ways, some too terrible to mention. Funnily enough, the removal of the monuments will not erase the history of why they were there. Those advocating for the removal want that history remembered for it is their history as well to which they add their stories, their background, and their survival.
That brings us to Clint Smith and his journey across America and the Atlantic to bring us a few glimpses of a history that the can’t-erase-history crowd are trying their damndest to erase.
He opens with an examination of Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Hemmings story that he unraveled during his visits to Monticello. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) was aware of that history, but then Mr. Smith brings to our attention the dichotomy between the stirring words of Jefferson’s Magnus Opus, the Declaration of Independence, in which he declares that ‘all men are created equal’ and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he expressed his view that Black people were inferior to white people.
GOT did not know that. It seems Thomas Jefferson did not believe that all men are created equal or worse, perhaps he regarded Black people, like most of the white population, as something less than.
Smith moves on to his visit to Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, a historical site not dedicated to picture-perfect backdrops for overpriced weddings or admiration of antebellum architecture, but a site dedicated to telling the story of plantation life from the view of the enslaved. He tells of his steps inside a cabin that was not weathertight nor did it have any creature comforts. The enslaved were left to sleep on the hard floorboards.
Smith visited many places on his journey, not all of which he includes in his book. But a few chapters later, he gives a picture of New York City during colonial days, when one out of every four persons was a Black slave.
Oops! That was left out, one could almost say erased, from the history of America that GOT was taught.
Smith finishes his book by describing what he learned when he sat down with his surviving grandparents, one grandfather and one grandmother. They passed on living history, the stories of people who lived through the Jim Crow days and the terrorism of the KKK.
And that is how the word is passed. That is how history will not be forgotten, even though some would suppress its teaching in the schools. History will find a voice for its telling, even if it is just whispered among the reeds as the wind blows.
Go ahead, anti-CRT people. Storm those school board meetings and remove all the books you don’t like. But as you like to say, “No one can erase history.”
This nation was built upon Black slavery. The day of reckoning and, hopefully, reconciliation and reparation is near. Because, and isn’t this what really drives the panic of the dying white supremacy view, they really haven’t been birthing enough babies.
GOT may not live to see the day, but he knows that it is coming.
And by all means, get yourself a copy of the book, not only for the story he tells, but because Cllint Smith is an outstanding writer. His descriptions, the way he forms his word pictures, … GOT wishes he was that good.