Black History Month: Learning From or Living in the Past?

I have homework to do and, like a teenage boy, I’m procrastinating because I’m not looking forward to it. Sitting on top of my computer is a red Netflix envelope containing the movie Rosewood. In case you don’t know it, it’s a fictional account of a horrific race-related episode that took place in the town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923. The movie was directed by John Singleton of Boyz n the Hood fame.

Rosewood was a predominantly black town whose residents were largely self-sufficient. When a white woman declared that a black drifter had beaten and raped her, whites living nearby captured and lynched a black Rosewood resident, then went on a rampage that drove the rest of Rosewood’s residents out of their homes and into the nearby swamps for safety. At least six blacks and two whites were killed, and the town was burned to the ground and the residents scattered across the state, never to return.

People on both sides of the massacre kept an eerie silence about Rosewood for decades. Black families, contrary to their traditions of oral history, refused to talk about it, and anyone who spoke of it to strangers was threatened. No blacks lived in the vicinity of Rosewood for years after the massacre; a black family that retired to Rosewood from Washington, DC in 1993 remarked how none of their black friends visiting from a nearby town would stay after dark, and they never explained why.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that stories began to emerge in the press of what had happened there. As the nature and extent of the massacre came to light, the survivors and their descendants sued the state of Florida for failing to protect them, and the state eventually mandated compensation for their losses. Rosewood is now a ghost town, an historical marker indicating the site where a happy, thriving community of 355 people once stood.

Regrettably, stories similar to this one were repeated in far too many locations in the United States. Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898. Springfield, Illinois, 1908. The Red Summer of 1919. Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. It’s a grim list, indeed.

My reluctance to watch the film, however, isn’t because I want to sweep these atrocities under the rug. The fact there are untold millions of people in the world who insist on denying the Holocaust tells me that we mustn’t be silent about man’s inhumanity to man. Our tendency to absolve ourselves of past sins sometimes distorts into mass denial and, as a result, the possibility looms that we’ll commit the same horrific crimes at some point in the future.

I’m also not looking to shield myself from the pain and outrage that depictions of such episodes stir within the hearts of most good-hearted people. It’s precisely that reaction that makes us determined, as far as it depends on us, to never allow such evil to happen again

No, my reason is a little more complex than that.

You see, I was invited to join a local discussion group sponsored by our county library, the intent of which is to discuss controversial issues in a setting that encourages civility and respect for different points of view. The leader of the program, a really sweet young woman, felt that the group lacked a conservative point of view, thus the invitation to me. I accepted – yes, I’m the token conservative, and the irony of that is not lost on me!

A scheduling conflict kept me from joining the group when they watched Rosewood together at the library one evening, so I committed to renting the film and watching it on my own.

After viewing the film, the group decided it wasn’t a suitable vehicle for discussion, but it did stir a lot of comments about slave auctions that took place just up the road from where I currently live, and the email conversation was charged with interest about what other vestiges of slavery or the slave trade could be unearthed in our area.

I found myself asking, silently, “To what end?”

This is where I part company with liberals on the centuries-old struggle over race in America. I choose to learn lessons of right and wrong from history, and I look at the whole history, not just the tragedies but also the triumphs.

I could sense in the dialogue, however, that well-meaning yet patronizing tone so prevalent in the liberal community – “Those poor people! They’ve suffered so much! That’s why they have so many problems. We can’t do enough to make it up to them!”

They believe there is a cosmic scale somewhere that requires them to compensate for the sins of their forefathers until balance is achieved. Stories like the Rosewood massacre are revisited and their passion for redistributive justice is stoked yet again.

Moreover, there is no shortage of black people looking to exploit this liberal guilt, either out of a genuine belief that some form of atonement is necessary to right the cosmic scale or, as Booker T. Washington put it:

"There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs -- partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs....There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who do not want the patient to get well, because as long as the disease holds out they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public."

So while films like Rosewood inflame passions, I’m left to wonder why there aren’t more movies celebrating black achievers in our history like Biddie Mason.

I know what you’re asking – who?

Bridget “Biddie” Mason was born a slave in Georgia in 1818 and, when her master took her and his other slaves into California, a free state, she petitioned for and won her freedom in 1856 after 38 years of bondage.

She worked as a nurse and midwife, saving her money and eventually becoming one of the first black landowners in Los Angeles. Her land holdings were in what is now the commercial district of Los Angeles, so as the town grew, so did the value of her real estate holdings. She became a wealthy woman.

She was also a successful businesswoman, and she used her wealth and influence to help others, donating to charities, feeding and sheltering the poor and visiting prisoners. She founded a traveler’s aid center, an elementary school for black children, and the first black church in the city, for which she donated the land.

She was a well-regarded member of the community who helped everyone regardless of race, which won her the nickname Grandma Mason. Her fluent Spanish led to her being an occasional dinner guest of the last Mexican governor of California, a naturalized American citizen and a wealthy man in his own right.

She died on January 15, 1891, and is honored to this day in California on Biddie Mason Day, November 16th.

I gain great inspiration from the stories of black men and women who were born in chains and rose, on the strength of their character and their persistence, to the pinnacle of American society, all without demanding anything more than the rights accorded to all Americans.

If anyone had cause for resentment and the demanding of reparations, these people did, yet they chose instead to seize the opportunities their newfound freedom presented to them. They created their own success rather than wait for someone to give them their due.

If they can do what they did under the circumstances in which they found themselves, then I diminish their legacy by doing anything less.

Frederick Douglass, another black striver who rose from slavery to significance, was unsparing in his criticism of well-meaning but patronizing white people, the forerunners of today’s liberals:

Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, "What shall we do with the Negro?" I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature's plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.

All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone--your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks' "preparation" is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone! If the Negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice, so beautifully pictured to you in the illustration used by Mr. Phillips, the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the Negro, and established that line for his government. Let him live or die by that. If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live.

I don’t question the compassion from which the cries of atonement spring, but I question the solution that is offered, for it has done more harm than good – in Douglass’ words, it has “played the mischief with us.”

Wallowing in the atrocities of the past only exacerbates the mischief. I choose to learn from history. Others choose to live in it. I’ll remind myself of that when I get around to doing my homework.