A real lesson about portraying history in black and white

February 19, 2003|By Gregory Kane

IT'S A SIGN of these sorry political times that this subject even has to be broached, but isn't it time we defended white people?

Before you cavalierly pooh-pooh the notion, consider the publication of Race Traitor, a journal dedicated to the proposition that the white race needs to be abolished and uses the invidious but nonetheless catchy slogan "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, of Harvard University and New York University, respectively, are two white guys who started Race Traitor in 1992.

"Oh, my goodness," said Elyzabeth-Anne Marcussen when she learned of the journal's existence. Marcussen is a Pasadena woman who recently moved to Maryland with her husband and two daughters.

She got her first taste of white-bashing when her 7- year-old came home from school and gave the highlights of her second-grade social studies lesson on the Rev.. Martin Luther King Jr. The innocent lass - the civil rights leader was "Martin King Junior Luther, who wasn't a sick-people doctor" in her previously unbesmirched mind - was going along swimmingly for a bit, telling her mom where King was born and how he graduated from seminary school and became a pastor. Then came the part about the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott.

"Now her story is peppered with `the white people were against it' and `the white people burned crosses in their yards' and on and on," Marcussen, a homemaker and radio ad-writer, wrote in an online site called EAForums. Seeing that frequent negative references to whites were stressing her daughter out, Marcussen decided some motherly intervention was in order. "I don't think that's what your teachers meant to convey," Marcussen told her.

Then, as simply as she could explain it to a 7-year-old mind, Marcussen showed her daughter the error of blanket statements like "the white people did this or that." Marcussen told her daughter that both of them were white and didn't make black people sit in the back of buses or burn crosses on their lawns or make them drink from separate water fountains.

"Ignorant people did that," Marcussen told her. "Ignorant people are people who don't know any better AND don't care if they ever learn."

"What about the white people who killed King Martin Junior Luther?" the girl asked. "That was one man," her mom answered, "an evil, ignorant, cowardly man. He just happened to be white. I just don't want you to think that you are bad because you are white. And it seems to me that your teachers don't realize they're making you think all white people were out to hurt black people."

That couldn't have been the teachers' intent when they taught about King. But what if they supplemented the lesson with these facts: In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed. White people were prominent figures in its founding.

In 1942, blacks AND whites started the Congress of Racial Equality, an organization which, long before King, used nonviolent tactics to integrate Chicago restaurants. Some of "the white people" financially supported the NAACP, CORE and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which enabled these organizations to counter "the white people" who "made them drink from different water faucets" and "burned crosses on their lawns."

Other white people - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb - were killed fighting the same fight King dedicated his life to. If such lessons were given, maybe 7-year-old white kids wouldn't go home and tell their mommies what bad white people did.

Marcussen has no problem with teaching kids about diversity. It's the WAY diversity is taught that bugs her. "In the interest of teaching diversity," Marcussen said, "we may end up segmenting ourselves instead of unifying ourselves."

We've segmented ourselves to such an extent that a group of black Americans took to the National Mall in Washington last August and demanded reparations for slavery. Some of them proudly carried signs that read, "They owe us."

The "them" vs. "us" proponents of American history brusquely sweep aside the contributions of Lyman Trumbull, the 19th-century Illinois senator who was instrumental in getting the 13th Amendment - which outlawed slavery - passed. White abolitionists like Wendell Phillips and those who risked imprisonment to resist the Fugitive Slave Act are similarly shunted aside.

The history of slavery and racism in America is a tale of how WE - Americans of all races - resisted both. Let's hope somebody passes that information on to Marcussen's daughter by the time she gets out of school.

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