How Can We Bring Ferguson To The Dinner Table This Thanksgiving?
Monday evening's non-indictment of white police officer Darren Wilson and the events that have transpired in Ferguson, MO. since Wilson fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown in August will arguably become a pivotal moment in our nation's history. But in the reactions I've seen across my social media platform(s) — mainly Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr — I notice a very clear and outspoken societal divide trending that hasn't yet pushed its way to the front lines of the debate: the educated vs. the re-educated. Let me explain what I mean.
In the small (approximately 25,000 residents), predominantly white Central New Jersey suburb where I grew up, our schools' curricula normally included a daily course with the blanket title "Social Studies" — a rather presumptuous name for a class that tried to fit hundreds, if not thousands of years of history into teaching slots that were normally less than an hour. The history books distributed in these classrooms, even before the age of 13, taught us how to begin to see our world as we knew it, inclusive of any and all bias that found its way into the paragraphs we had to memorize every week for pop quizzes and vocabulary tests. They shaped our ideals through careful word choice and both intentional and unintentional omissions, directing our thought processes in such a way that it never occurred to us to question them.
Hugely relevant historical events were white-washed, insomuch as the only voice that was heard was that of the victors', the bulk of American victories and its patriotic pride being attributed to the white majority; it was they who were the true pioneers of our land, just as it was they who had eventually given the slaves their freedom (back) and allowed for the desegregation of our schools. Our vantage point on our nation's relatively short yet monumental history was skewed: we were given very few pieces of the puzzle to work with, shown only one perspective on our nation's actions on the global stage. It was in our early childhoods, between the four walls of those classrooms, that we were mis-educated.
"When you control a [person's] thinking you do not have to worry about [their] actions. You do not have to tell [them] not to stand here or go yonder. [They] will find [their] 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send [them] to the back door. [They] will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, [they] will cut one for [their] special benefit. [Their] education makes it necessary." - Dr. Carter G. Woodson, as quoted from his book The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)
We were taught that the Civil Rights Movement was basically just the Black Panther Party, a few lunch counter sit-ins, and one really big march on the capital, during which Martin Luther King, Jr., made a really moving speech. We listened to that speech and felt moved, too, but didn't truly understand why. We learned about the ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954 (consequently paving the way for the painstakingly slow desegregation of the American education system), watched a chilling performance by Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans , and then everything was fine.We were taught that the Atlantic Slave Trade brought millions of Africans onto North American soil by boat, and that some of them were killed on the journey. We read about how they were forced to work on plantations and were often mistreated. We learned that with the founding of America, our forefathers wrote into our Constitution that every slave would be worth 3/5 of a person — that it was at first debated, because some believed that slaves (in other words, humans restrained to forced labor) need be represented only as property. And they even gave it a name: "The Three-Fifths Compromise." The American Civil War went down in history as another "fight for freedom," the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered by Abraham Lincoln (who promised freedom for all slaves before really having the power to do so...), and then everything was fine.
We were taught that a small celebratory feast between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag natives was something we should all be thankful for, a figurative harvest gracing us all with its plentiful bounty every fourth Thursday of November. We were spoon-fed a beautified little picture — which we like to call "Thanksgiving" — that completely painted over the eventual and quite comprehensive genocide of the Native North American populations, who suffered casualties measuring up to roughly 98 percent of their total populace over the course of four centuries. The textbooks neatly summed up an entire continent's suffering in their chapter on "The Trail of Tears," then continued onto the next event in history without giving a second thought to the ongoing problem of cultural appropriation, and then everything was fine.
The point is that everything is not fine, and that "Social Studies" wasn't "social" at all, ever — it wasn't meant to be. It didn't make room for discussion. It didn't introduce aspects of our history to us in a way that examined their sociological importance; it didn't allow for connections to be made to current events so that vicious cycles could be discovered and acknowledged and (hopefully) ended; it didn't give us the opportunity to assess our national narrative ourselves, to make our own judgments, to assume responsibility where we felt we should have, or to realize the mistakes that had been made so that we wouldn't make them again. We weren't taught how to be "social"; we were taught how to be cold. We were taught how to be socially passive, how to forgo our agency in the face of our history, and how to memorize words without feeling their meaning. It took us twice as long to develop voices that some of us never ended up finding. In this way, Americans are forced to re-educate themselves in a system where their initial education predisposes them to a desensitized understanding of human life and a misinterpretation of the term freedom, a loaded word whose denotation has been reconstructed more than once by both the media and the government in the course of American history.
As it stands, the "Land of the Free" has no substantial grounds for its title; the freedom we thought we had is something we only learned about in schools, in those textbooks with the shiny red, white, and blue flags on them, the superimposed bald eagle peering deep into your soul — an interesting choice of symbol to represent freedom, given that this species "became threatened with extinction in the early 1900s" due to American expansion and lack of concern for the environment.
The events playing out in Ferguson right now are only symptomatic of a disease that's been plaguing the U.S. since its inception in 1776 and honestly, even before then — it is a nation-state whose execution of freedom has always been irrevocably bound with the suffering of another people. Am I happy to be a citizen of this country right now? No, not really. My deepest sympathies go out to the Brown family with the loss of their son, as well as any other family, regardless of race, who has lost a member due to unwarranted police brutality in America. Yet my heart aches inconsolably with the losses we continue to suffer and have suffered, and those lives we have made to suffer, as an entire nation over the span of our existence. Its aching transcends the depth of that initial sympathy. As far as Thanksgiving is concerned, I don't think I'll be able to bring myself to be thankful this time around. I want to have hope for this backwards nation that desires so terribly to be free and yet forgets to teach its young the most important lesson there is: how to question. But in order to cultivate hope, we have to first re-learn, re-teach, re-educate ourselves and others so that we can remind ourselves what freedom really feels like... and finally start pursuing that again.