By William “Duke” Smither
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” – from “The New Colossus,” written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus (American-born, Jewish Author, and Activist), displayed on the plaque of ‘Lady Liberty’, a gracious gift from France.
By now, it is likely that most Americans are sick-and-tired of the peculiar and darn-near daily ‘drip, drip, drip’ of the bigoted, xenophobic, coded expressions, and sanctimonious ‘tweets’ coming forth from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, D.C.
But, the recent waves of the ‘go back to where you come from’ meme, from America’s cultural roots, are merely remindful of how far we still have to go to truly appreciate that it’s our cultural diversity, not sameness, that fashions the real strength of our nation’s fabric. Not slogan-filled hats and racialized code words, nor stoking the embers of racial hatred or ethnic tensions.
The true strength of our nation stems from the idea that we are a patchwork quilt of the “huddled masses” from many cultures, united behind the notions of certain freedoms, not fear and hate. Utopian you say? Idealistic? Certainly so. But, not so romantic or far outside the scope of the authentic compassion for others and, arguably, unambiguous hopes for the collective future of all of our children. At least, that’s how I see ourselves, replete with all of our glaring faults, flaws, and imperfections. Shucks, if “huddled masses” are our strength, then immigrants are our spirit and future!
But, the recent ruckus, stemming from the mid-July 2019, early-morning White House ‘Twitter’ tirade, targeting four duly elected Democratic congresswomen of color, seemed to contradict everything we stand for. Allegedly posted by the 45th and current president of the United States, the “tweet(s),” which law professionals now deem as ‘official statements of the President,’ stated: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” And, the rippling waves of whiplashing condemnation, trailing in the wake, have reverberated throughout the nation and around the world, ever since.
But, How Did We Get Here?
Surely, on these shores, in this “Land of the noble free,” we’ve been here many times before. The moral issues of racism and racial discrimination have always been complicated. And, the matters of systemic bigotry and institutional racism embedded in our society are now generating new concerns from many of our staunchest supporters and NATO allies since World War II. Clearly, they too are worried.
Ironically, many of America’s colonial immigrants, previously considered ‘non-white’, have faced these swirling winds of racism, too, not even mentioning Africans, enslaved or free, or America’s native-born people who were not officially recognized until early in the 20th century. But, ‘whiteness’ or crude codifications of color (i.e., the hypodescent or so-called “one-drop rule”) is a social construct dating back to antebellum and colonial times; yet, apparently, it remains somewhat curiously effective for some groups, still today, according to research supported by Harvard University (See: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/one-drop-rule-persists/ ).
Yet, it’s the screaming silence, by other political officeholders, on the racialized comments coming from our nation’s capital that’s a little concerning, as well as crippling to our future. Children really do learn about racism from us and eventually mimic our strange ways.
Growing up in Kentucky, but spending most summers on my grandparent’s farm in Ohio, I learned early on that if you were getting little whiffs of manure, it probably was manure somewhere. Whether it was chicken poop, hog droppings or ‘meadow muffins’ was another matter. You didn’t have to see or be ankle-deep in dung to discern from whence it came. The stench alone told you it was plain ole crap.
On the other hand, it appears that racism in America is largely like a cultural Rorschach test. The way we see it differently seems to be a huge block as to how we even discuss it, further stoking our peculiar racial divides, in my opinion.
Even innocent bystanders likely sense that this bizarre nature of bias is often weaponized as if it’s all a game, but a con game of sorts, where grifters are seeking to swindle victims out of something of value, in the long run. Similarly, where black people have been ostensibly the victim, the award-winning American novelist, Toni Morrison, professor emeritus at Princeton University, once framed the scheme this way:
“…Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It’s the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence is to define black people as reaction to white presence” (Portland State University archives, excerpts from Toni Morrison’s 1975 speech on Black artists).
But, when our children begin to adopt this ‘game’, consciously or unconsciously, it handicaps their future, further kneecapping their development associated with respecting others, as well as themselves.
During a recently televised, presidential re-election campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina (July 17, 2019), the t.v. news camera directed my attention to a couple of youths, positioned directly behind the podium. Initially, they appeared confused as to whether or not to join in with the crowd’s rally chants of “send her back,” stemming from the president’s earlier references to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Right away, it conjured up images I recall seeing years ago of little children, whole families even, dressed up in their Sunday best, as jeering bystanders at various public lynchings in the Dixie South. Again, as it did when I was a child, that Greenville, North Carolina image made me ponder once more, “What are you teaching the children?” It’s a mantra I’ve used myself when cultural norms clash with various family-life crisis points.
From there, it was merely a moment before other ugly childhood reminders seeped into my mind, associated with growing up in Kentucky during school desegregation. This included early impressions of what Native American children must have felt, including the slurs and disrespect, when first hearing of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
That’s when the actions of President Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States, forced an estimated 20,000 or more Native Americans from their homelands, in the Southern United States, on the long brutal foot march to Indian Territory and reservations in Oklahoma. Primarily, this included the tribes of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole nations, many of them with black tribal members. Once again, I thought: What did their children learn?
To be certain, yes, there where issues of race and racism which confronted many of us, growing up during the years of “Old Jim Crow,” on the cusp of racial busing and school desegregation. But, I also recall the number of profound leaders, black and white, which effectively guided us through those horrific encounters in spite of whatever personal feelings that they themselves may have had. Looking back, that alone is remindful of what it takes to truly rise above the fray for the overall, collective or public good.
And, I’m equally thankful for the various informed leaders, military and civilian, too numerous to name, which helped me better understand the power of our diversity, as well as focusing on what we have in common, in order to achieve higher-order objectives. My overall life experiences, military and civilian, are why I’m confident that these ominous storm clouds and challenges facing our nation’s race relations will also disperse, making way for sunnier skies.
A Con Game?
However, I must confess that I’m still concerned and somewhat surprised by this nation’s resurgent slippery slopes of the politicized racism and bigotry which once consumed us. Once again, it seems to have crippled our political leadership with inward-looking rhetoric, outright lies, and deliberate distortions. As in the past, it stifles us and further stirs the already-scorched pot of white supremacy, Islamophobia and dangerous anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment. Nothing but more evil and nothing good is bound to come from these mindless expressions of hate. Even still, it appears to be part of our genetic make-up just the same.
And, what in the heck does it really mean– in America– to tell somebody to go back to where they come from? Exactly where do ‘we the people’ come from? Perhaps, we should all try putting ourselves in the shoes of the first real Americans– the indigenous peoples of the Americas– long before ‘we the people’ even arrived, long before Christopher Columbus and the flagrant lies and misrepresentations of European colonialism and imperialism kickstarted the cultural blight which crept onto the scenic shorelines and lush riparian zones of the Americas and the Carribean.
Now, looking back at the big picture of shell-games, swindles, and shams used in conquering others, it’s all readily apparent. When leafing through the pages of this nation’s classroom history books, it adds new mystery for those missing pages and lost footnotes which common-sense tells us that they must exist.
In a sense, it was all part of a game, as the con game of racism mentioned above, within the grand flimflam and political designs to cause distraction and keep the targeted victim’s mind away from the idea or reality of personal spirit and political power, or anything but one’s own program or story.
I mean, who really knows what the heck was going on behind closed doors when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella agreed to support Columbus’ westward explorations. Or, when Pope Alexander VI’s late-15th century decree led to divvying up the world between Spain and Portugal for exploration and trading rights, slicing the Atlantic Ocean in half with an imaginary line with “the old world,” Portugal’s, on one side and “the new world,” Spain’s, on the other. But, it happened.
Backroom Political Shenanigans?
On the other hand, no one truly knows the behind-the-scenes scheming within how elected officials swindled Native American tribes, with over 500 broken treaties between 1778 and 1871!
To name a few tribes, many of them also with Black members, included but was not limited to: the Narragansett, Pequot, Wampanoag, Shinnecock, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek and Cherokee; plus the Iroquois, Huron,Chickasaw, Shawnee, Mohawk, Seneca, Alibamu, Lakota, Dakota, Sioux, Omaha, Ponca, Pawnee, Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Arapaho, Shoshoni, Comanche, Kiowa, Navajo, Paiute, Apache, Mescalero, Yuma, and many others.
Ironically, some of these tribes may have come to the Americas more than 12,000 years ago; but, it wasn’t until 1924 before they were granted U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in 1924 (The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, a.k.a., “the Snyder Act”).
How did backroom politicians and other folks fix their blathering to tell Native Americans, whose presence dotted this country’s landscapes long before them, where to go back to?
Surely, our collective history is not pretty. But, somehow, we must strive to be honest with ourselves about discussing the truths of the brutal past before we can move on to brighter horizons, together. It’s never easy. It’s downright complex and confusing, but crucial. A political storm is surely brewing. The dark clouds of racism and demagoguery are gathering on the horizon, once again. But, once again, it’s up to ‘We the people’, to get past this particular crisis point, not political gamesmanship and diversions of selfish, power-seeking politicians.
According to our 16th president, Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln, “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” Hopefully, it’s a message that still resonates with ‘We the people’.
Perhaps by the nation’s next presidential election, scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020, the America we all know, regardless of her faults and frailties, will speak in a loud and clear voice to once again reject the current rhetoric of fear-mongering and hate.
From where I sit, where we are going and what we are teaching our children still matters. How do we get there remains the question.