A Bit of History

Lets begin with India.  Vir Das is a very popular stand-up comedian from India who has been touring the US.   This is from a recent article in the Washington Post:

“The comedian from Mumbai stood onstage Friday night at the Kennedy Center with a camouflage-print shirt on his back and fire in his belly.  Before closing his sold-out show, Vir Das told his Washington audience he needed to talk about his homeland. He didn’t come from one India, Das said, but two Indias, seemingly at odds.  Today’s India is a country that is proudly vegetarian yet oppresses protesting farmers, Das said. It’s a country that worships women but grapples with horrific rape cases. It’s a country brimming with a huge, young population but is led by septuagenarian leaders with outdated ideas.” ( He could have also added, a country that espouses a religious view of reality but also allows one group to call for the extermination of Muslims!)

When this appeared online the response in India was just as expected: outrage and applause.  There were calls for censorship, for muzzling him, even for prosecution.  Not surprising considering the restrictions on free speech that the current government is bringing about or its denial of some of its real problems.  (The US State Dept. issued a travel advisory warning travelers to India that rape has alarmingly increased in India.)  But none of this is the point of this reflection.  I am more interested in the level of awareness of this young Indian, the fact that he understands, at least in part,  the “two” situation.  This can be and has been trivialized by saying that, yes, every culture has some good and some bad in it.  The situation is more complex and more interesting and more problematic than that.  All cultures, all countries, all religions live in a kind of dualism of vision.  There’s the story they tell themselves about their strengths and virtues, their truths, their contributions to the human condition; and then there is another story which is really not told, which holds a nightmare of darkness and chaos and confusion and violence, which we grapple with but try to pretend that it is not really an integral part of our fabric.  In other words, our children do not learn our real history, do not learn what were “the sins of the fathers” and therefore they are cut off from redeeming that past from its delusions and darkness. Thus they become vulnerable to the sloganeering of MAGA, to the fantasy vision of early America, to the arrogance of power, to a delusional sense of what constitutes the “good life” for an American, etc.  To put it in Vir Das’s terms:  we all live in two Americas, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.  And each is as real as the other, and it has been that way since the beginning!

Lets recall Norman Rockwell, the illustrator.  He became famous for his “sweet,” heart-warming depictions of life in small-town America….of course almost all white with a few Black people in ambiguous roles.  These drawings appeared as the front page of each issue of the magazine Saturday Evening Post.  When the Civil Rights era unfolded in the ‘60s, he wanted to include Blacks in a fuller way in his portrayals.  The Post would not allow it unless Blacks were shown in a subservient position.  He refused and left.  When he joined Look magazine, his first drawing showed a little Black girl being escorted to school through an angry crowd by a U.S. Marshall.  So…Rockwell had visited both Americas.  The really sad part and the really alarming part is that the majority of Americans seem not to want to know the “other America.”  And this “other America” pervades the whole culture until it is seen for what it is and confronted with the truth.

Two years ago, 2019, the NY Times published The 1619 Project, a collection of essays by some historians and other scholars, to memorialize the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of the first ship bringing African slaves to the New World.  But this was far more than some “remembrance”; it examined and highlighted the impact of slavery, the pervasive effects of slavery throughout our culture and economy, how it shaped the racism that infects our institutions and our collective lives even today.  A lot of this kind of analysis has not been taught widely in the history classes of our schools.  Certainly not in the American history class I had in my high school!  And, significantly enough, teachers today who have tried to use some of this material in their classes have run into heated opposition from parents’ groups and others.  Yes, some of the claims made in The Project might be overstated; and yes this material is not really for grade school members; but overall The Project is a bullseye, and can be wisely used in high school history.  When properly used it could help everyone, students and parents, come to terms with who “I” am, who “we” are, and how do we journey as a culture and a society from “here” to “there.”  Sadly many parents want to live only in a fantasy myth of America.  (I won’t go into it here, but it is also interesting to see the academic and elite feathers that were ruffled by The Project.  Don’t think that the “American fairy tale” dominates only MAGA lower classes.)

You might think that slavery and American capitalism have nothing to do with each other.  You won’t learn much about this from the standard history books used in high schools and colleges.  See if this essay doesn’t open a disturbing door:   


Then, there’s the infamous 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, the one which all gun lovers in America swear by.  There are a number of reasons why this constitutional bow to gun-toting citizens was inserted.  Among them, two were connected to the institution of slavery.  Several slave-holding states wanted this provision in the constitution to legitimize the arming of civilians who went hunting for runaway slaves…even to the “free” states.  Also, unspoken, but very real was the fear among slave owners of slave rebellions and the physical danger they posed.  You needed guns to protect yourself from retaliation!  Even today there’s quite a few whites who have this subconscious fear of Black people buried deep within them.  

I bet you never heard of “sundown towns” (sometimes also known as “sunset towns”).  I certainly did not hear of these until very recently.  These were prevalent in the South, but they were also abundantly available in the Midwest and could also be found in significant numbers everywhere else.  A “sundown town” was one where people of color were either explicitly told not to be out on the street after sunset, or there was a general understanding that it was not wise for them to be out at that time.  Here is the wiki page on this phenomenon; read and be shocked:


Lets not forget our Native American brothers and sisters.  Most of us have some sense of the physical trauma that Native Americans experienced from White America right from the get go, from colonial times all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century.  Even so, when you become informed of the details you will still be shocked.  But few of us have any real grasp of the psychological and cultural genocide experienced by Native Americans.  Consider the story below:


And I bet you never heard this story in your history class:



D. H. Lawrence, the famous British writer, lived for a number of years in Taos, New Mexico.  He was a keen observer of American mythologies and a sharp interpreter of their meaning.  Once, in writing about the frontier myths created by James Fenimore Cooper, he opined:

“But you have there the myth of the essential white America.  All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play.  The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.  It has never yet melted.”

“Land of the Free, Home of the Brave!”  Right?

Admittedly a partial truth here, a grain of truth  here…..but unless the “other part” is admitted, brought out into the light, not for browbeating people but for an authentic and collective healing (recall the scripture readings for Ash Wed. and Lent), unless we really see how we got “here,”  we will continue deteriorating spiritually, socially, economically.  To borrow from Jesus, if the “darkness” is our light, then we truly live in the Dark.