My history is also part of our history

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010

History is not a Hallmark card. Sometimes, history breaks your heart.

I know this because I have often recounted history in this space, tales of black men and women bought and sold, cheated and mistreated, maimed and lynched. And whenever I do this, I can be assured of e-mails and calls of chastisement.

I still remember one of the first, an earnest lady who pleaded with me to leave this history behind. Telling such tales, she said, could not help but make black people resent white ones.

Her complaint presented a quandary. I find the same value in recounting those stories that my former boss Bert used to find in remembering Holocaust brutalities and my friend John finds in recalling Irish suffering at British hands. Understanding the past provides context to understand the present and predict the future. Moreover, history is identity. These stories tell me who I am.

But there's a difference, isn't there? Bert's history indicts Germans in Europe, John's indicts Britons in the United Kingdom. Mine indicts white people, here.

So I'm not without sympathy for people like that lady. This history hurts. But is requiring me not to speak it really the best response to that hurt? Should a hard truth not be uttered for fear it might cause somebody, somewhere to resent?

Her answer, I suspect, would be yes. In that, she would be much like the state of Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer just signed a law restricting ethnic studies courses in public schools. Having apparently decided she had not done enough to peeve Latino voters by signing a Draconian immigration bill a few days back, the governor went after a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson. But the prohibitions in the new law seem to say more about the mind-set of the governor than about any real danger posed by ethnic studies.

Specifically, the law bans classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." And you wonder: What sort of ethnic studies classes did SHE attend? Is that really what people think those classes are about?

Worse, the restrictions are so broad, so void of legal precision, as to be meaningless. How does one decide to a legal certainty whether a class is "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group?" How can one know with legal exactness whether a class will "promote resentment"?

Like the lady who called me, the governor seems to prefer that hard stories not be told, that doing so detracts from American unity. As one online observer put it, "We need to focus on America instead of promoting everyone else."

The problem with that reasoning is obvious: America IS everyone else, a nation composed of other nations, a culture made of other cultures, a history built of other histories. And yes, sometimes, those histories will be hard to hear.

But silence does not make a hard story go away. Silence only makes it fester, grow and, sometimes, explode.

It is in our narratives that we explain ourselves to ourselves. That's a crucial matter in a nation that is, after all, bound not by common blood or ancestry, but by common fealty to a set of revolutionary ideals that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..."

To those ideals have flocked men and women from every other nation on earth, each with stories of their own.

Granted, the challenge of incorporating those stories into the larger American story is daunting. The governor seems to fear what kind of nation we'll be if we accept that challenge.

I fear what kind we'll be if we don't.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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