La La How The Life Goes On

100 Years

Posted on: March 21, 2016

I talk quite a bit in these pages about race in our country. I know those posts make people uncomfortable. I do it because in order for a wound to heal we have to first all agree that there is a wound in the first place. Then we have to disinfect it. Then we have to treat it with care so it can truly recover.

I receive messages asking why I think race is still an issue in our country. Why can’t people get over it? Why am I being held responsible for something I had no part in doing back in history? The short and incomplete answer is because that’s life. I don’t get to absolve myself of complicity because “I personally never owned slaves.” DERP. We pretty much all fit that category. A good number of us are descended from folks who did, though. But even if we aren’t, we live in this world, and this world is a product of white supremacy.

I was struck by the article above the other day. It details Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was purchased and brought to New York as part of a “human zoo.”

I’m just going to let that hang in the air for a minute.  I want you to read that sentence and feel the horror that should be incumbent upon all of us. A Human Zoo. In the United States of America. New York. Just 100 years ago.  During which The New York Times intoned:

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter … It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies … are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place … from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.

100 years. That’s about as long as we have been flying. The Theory of Relativity was posited by Albert Einstein in 1905. We were inventing the tractor, neon lights, plastics. So please let’s not pretend we were primitive humans who didn’t know any better, and let’s all get comfortable with the discomfiting truth:

Just 100 years ago, white Americans visited Human Zoos. The “newspaper of record” published a spirited defense of holding an African human man in a cage with apes. Millions of Americans agreed.

Have we come far in the intervening 100 years? Maybe. Unless you read the comments section of any web article about our biracial President of the United States or his Black wife, the First Lady of the United States. Or receive “joke” emails from senior citizen members of various southern republican county parties in which our president is depicted as an ape and his wife a bovine. Or, really, any Fox and Friends newscast where some talking head cannot help but work the word “ghetto” or “gangsta” into a discussion of our President and his (by all fair accounts) classy and decent wife and children.  Where the First Lady of the United States is referred to as a “Baby Mama” without apology. I spent my Friday on an Allen West community web page very literally sick to my stomach with the hate and the vitriol directed at the Obama family. Where his 14 and 17 year old daughters were called “hoes” and worse. Where numerous depictions of the First Family as animals were met with Thumbs Up from other commenters. And any attempts to point out this extreme prejudice is met with orders to “lighten up” or that “it was not meant offensively.” Or, worse, that it was entirely meant offensively because “those people are animals” who are destroying our country.

The charge against President Obama, of course, is that he has been “divisive.” That race relations are worse since he came to office because he has fanned them. I challenge anyone holding that belief to list the specific instances in detail. I also challenge you to consider that perhaps relations seem worse because President Obama became the focal point for people who always harbored racist views but who never had any real place to direct them (short of the usual suspect, Al Sharpton). But here’s the reality: Let’s walk into a room and turn on the light. If you see roaches scurrying, you are simply seeing what was there all along. The light didn’t attract the roaches or cause the roaches. The roaches were always there. You just shone a light on them and now you have to deal with the problem. Blaming President Obama for the hate directed toward him is like blaming the light bulb for revealing the roaches.

If you live in a world where you don’t interact with the folks on these websites you may truly believe that racism is dead and that the majority of people wish others well regardless of race. But I challenge you to spend even 15 minutes on a Donald Trump, Allen West or related site and you will be deeply and unequivocally changed forever. And believe me, the irony of seeing hateful racism on the web site led by a Black man is not lost on anyone. Except of course Allen West himself.  But I challenge you to do it anyway. Go to these sites. Read those comments. Take them in, seriously and substantively. I challenge you to consider, after 100 seconds on those boards, whether we are indeed so very far from where we were after 100 years.


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