History can be a valuable teacher, but only if we heed its lessons
“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” The famous words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana are among those aphorisms that seem to be embedded in American culture. But apparently many people who recited it regularly never took the time to think about the warning inherent in the message.
Because it seems, now more than ever, Americans are determined to repeat some of the nation’s sad history.
For example, the 1918 flu was also known as the Spanish Flu – the origin incorrectly attributed to Spain because the country remained neutral during World War I. to the same kind of ethnic finger-pointing that former President Donald Trump used in 2020 when he called COVID-19 the “kung flu” and blamed China and other Asian peoples for the pandemic.
Other similarities include the number of deaths from the 1918 flu rising sharply in all communities, but resources to fight the infection were limited where African Americans lived. One hundred years later, when COVID-19 became a global pandemic, even though the infection rate in predominantly black and brown communities was much higher, these residents were often the last to have access to healthcare resources. .
It has been truly difficult for me to witness, especially during Black History Month, the repetition of some of the country’s ugliest and most painful racial histories – the days when segregation laws and customs of Jim Crow prevented black people from voting. There may be no more sheriffs wielding a Billy club preventing potential voters of color from registering to vote. But the 34 new laws passed by 19 states last year restricting access to the vote, specifically designed to prevent them from going to the polls, are a copycat strategy. Yet this targeted campaign denying citizens the basic right to vote has yet to spark widespread public outcry. Is it because the threat hits marginalized communities harder? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often reminded his audience that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It’s so easy to forget the lessons of history, especially when so many people today don’t want to talk about history at all – and want to make sure no one else does either.
Suddenly understanding how we got here socially and politically is too uncomfortable, too messy, too nuanced to learn. Legislation recently enacted in 14 states — including Idaho, Iowa and Tennessee — prohibits teachers from discussing even the broad outlines of certain facts and events. In South Carolina, a bill pending in the legislature says teachers can’t talk about topics that create “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” related to belief Politics. How then to evoke the circumstances which led to the death of George Floyd? Or how this country whose constitution states that “all men are created equal” was built by people who were enslaved?
Black History Month, with its celebration of the great accomplishments of African Americans and its outspoken acknowledgment of what they have had to overcome, fiercely opposes this legalized silence. Reverend King preached the words of poet/journalist William Cullen Bryant: “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again. There are legions of determined and defiant people who will not be deterred from telling the truth. It is, after all, black history.