I was at the helm of thethis semester, so I decided to ease off on courses. I took Latin, creative writing, and an independent study with Dave Dawson at Haverford. My semester visiting Professor Dawson’s office with readings in hand was by far one of the best academic experiences I’ve had in college.
I went in with ambitious goals: to decode ways in which the Reformation and Enlightenment contributed to modernity and American history. Luckily, I had a few other guiding points to narrow things down.
There was a day that haunted me in a class I had taken a year before with Tracey Hucks, Varieties of African American Religious Experience. Among many other powerful moments in her classroom, this particular one was when Professor Hucks read from White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan’s paradigm book about the history of race in America. The section was about English perceptions of blackness, not from during the height of the transatlantic slave trade but from before, the time leading to Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I, and pilgrims en route to America.
“Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, ‘Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.’…White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.” (White Over Black, pg. 7)
For English Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and planters in the southeast, strong cultural and literary references to blackness were alive and in place so that slave-trading and slave-holding could become institutions protected by legal and political authority. Before the Mayflower, the European mind was already subject to ideas about color that would lead to the proliferation of slavery in the New World, and for religious and scientific stories alike to justify its persistence.
In a class a year later, Blacks and Jews in America, we were talking about how on the National Mall there is an American Indian museum, the nearby Holocaust museum, a tiny African Art museum, but no African American museum. I spoke without knowing exactly what I was going to say, stringing together conclusions I had scrawled in my notebook: “I don’t believe that white America would allow an African American museum to be located on the Mall. Letting blacks tell their story of America would overthrow the narrative structures on which America was built and continues to exist.”
I remember the room fell silent, and overall, people looked uncomfortable and grim. I felt uncomfortable too. I’m white, after all. I, and my family, have benefited from the exclusion of black Americans from this country’s story and economy since our Massachusetts Puritan ancestors to my mother’s childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. But as someone who believes very strongly in the power of stories and public education to change politics, and also as someone who has a growing sense of religious faith, I felt it was very important that I face the truth of what I was realizing.
Moments like this have rechartered the course of my academic interests from propositions about reason and free will to the experience of being in America and the world today. Race and inequality is something we live daily, something about our bodies as well as our minds. They are realities that are political, economic, and as I’ve learned from reading and other liberation theologians, transcendent.
Little did we in the Blacks and Jews class know that there will indeed be an African American museum on the National Mall (or that President Bush was the one who signed it into being). The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest Smithsonian museum in Washington, is scheduled to break ground in 2012 and be ready for visitors in 2015. Check out what they’re planning.
The museum will play a huge, exciting role in exactly what I feared couldn’t happen – a significant change of course in the way we tell the American story – right on the Mall.
In my studies with Professor Dawson, one of my primary concerns was to decipher what ideals lay at the heart of the European Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the founding of America. Which ideas actually created, rather than demolished, the categories by which people were and are excluded from the American dream? It’s not the kind of thing you can answer in a semester, or in a summer. But I think figuring it out is important. White Americans must be politically and culturally ready for what it means to take black American narratives seriously. White Americans must be ready to come to terms with the assumptions in our own history that permitted slavery, Jim Crow, and that continue to allow for shocking statistics of inequality based on race. History books need to change. The education gap needs to change. We must understand that giving African American history and culture the place (and funding) it deserves is central to understanding ourselves as Americans, because as the founding director of the NMAAHC by this story, by this culture, by this history.” And if we change the narrative, it will help change our politics.says, we are all shaped “