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History, guilt, and justice

Feb 28,2022 - Last updated at Feb 28,2022

Every year during Black History Month in the United States, I recall a televised interview with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier I watched over a half century ago. Discussing the importance of teaching Black history, they noted that its explicit teaching was necessary if our goal is to tell the full story of human history, as the contributions of Black Americans — in science and medicine, literature and the arts, and so many other fields — have been deliberately ignored or distorted. 

They added that contributions of Black Americans are only part of what’s missing. Also absent is an honest treatment of the de-humanising reality of slavery, the vicious legacy of segregation, lynching and the ethnic cleansing and systemic racism that have defined much of the Black American experience and that continue in different forms until today. Because the history we have learned has been so whitewashed and shorn of the Black experience, it is not only false, but also destructive and hurtful. 

A personal example: While we’ve lived in Northwest Washington, DC for the last four decades, only in the last decade have I learned the story of my neighbourhood. Built a century ago by the Chevy Chase Land Company (CCLC), the entire area was “covenanted” white — meaning that by law no homes could be sold to Black families. As the neighbourhood grew, a need arose to build schools to accommodate the White families who had moved in. The land chosen for the elementary and high schools were areas that had been settled by freed Black slaves who had lived there since before the Civil War — long before the CCLC’s racist covenants. In an act that can only be described as “ethnic cleansing”, the CCLC secured a government order evicting hundreds of Black families from their homes.  

When I first learned about this 1920s ethnic cleansing in my own neighbourhood, I was in shock. One of my children had gone to the resulting elementary school and for a decade I had coached a baseball team that played on the adjacent field. We had been playing on stolen land and didn’t know it. 

When we took this research to the city council and the mayor, none of them knew this history either. We found a Washington Post story from 1931 — just two years after the evictions — that mentioned new schools being built on the “rolling green hills” in Northwest Washington as if the land had been vacant, erasing the evictions and demolitions.       

As we learned more about this Black community and how its destruction had been written out of history, we felt shame and guilt at the injustice that had been done. We formed a group that was eventually able to get the story recognised, the name of the field changed to include the name of the Black families who had lived there, and historical signage erected on the site telling the story of Black American dispossession. It was small but needed recompense.   

In this context, it’s striking that during this year’s Black History Month, 15 state legislatures are moving to pass bills that would limit the teaching of Black history. As an example, the legislation in Florida reads: 

“An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex... An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” 

The bill is dead wrong. We need to know Black history, about the Black Americans whose contributions have been left out, and about the horrific pain endured by Black Americans from the moment they set foot on these shores to the present day. Most importantly, we need to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish... distress”. We all need to feel it because we can never correct the sins of the past, unless we know them and then work to address their legacy.

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