As we approach Inauguration Day on Wednesday, January 20th, we lie at the crossroads of progress and regress; of inclusive representative democracy and mob rule. With so much fear and uncertainty in the air, it is easy to forget the fact that we approach a significant national milestone this week.
“Freedom is not won by a passive acceptance of suffering. Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering.
By this measure, Negroes have not yet paid the full price for freedom.
And whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice.”
―Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Pause. Take a breath.
In the past few years and, more urgently, in the past months and weeks, some Americans have used the language of division to describe the United States—a "divided society." We are and have been. Using these kinds of labels helps, I think, because they allow us to begin giving language to our problems and then open up possible solutions. We have many fractures. There's not one thing that divides us. In other countries, people speak more freely of identity-based conflicts—sectarian, racial, and ethnic. We, too, have identity-based conflicts—this is one legacy of our unredressed history of racial injustice, violence, and oppression. We are also divided by additional vectors of inequality and we are divided by partisanship.
For many Americans, the popular story of the first Thanksgiving often goes like this: in 1621, the Pilgrims had recently arrived in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts—the traditional lands of the Wampanoag and Massachusett people—and were faced with a cold and bitter winter. The Wampanoag people noticed their plight and generously provided the Pilgrims with the means to survive. To provide thanks, the Pilgrims welcomed the Wampanoags to a harmonious feast. This narrative is shared in classrooms across America every year, has persisted in public memory, and is deeply embedded in the national identity of the United States. However, like many exceptionalist narratives in American history, this story is a one-sided understanding that glorifies colonization and ignores the full truth of history, particularly for the Indigenous People of the United States.
This month, in addition to being National Native American Heritage Month, marks 400 years since the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. Here in Massachusetts—a state named after the indigenous people of the “Great Blue Hill”—many of us are settlers on stolen land. I spoke with Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah based on Martha’s Vineyard, to hear her perspective on this moment, and what we can learn from reflecting on the anniversary.
“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.” —Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Since 1990, November has been National Native American Heritage Month in the United States—an opportunity to attend more deliberately to the histories, experiences, contributions, and ideas of Native American peoples. Though these experiences and archives ought to be top of mind throughout the year, the stakes this month may be even higher than usual. In this moment of national reckoning over the past and future of America, questions surrounding how we conceive of our national origins, who is included, and where we are headed are revealing profound divides. But there is a great deal of knowledge and insight that can be gained from the voices of those whose histories, ideas, and experiences are routinely pushed to the periphery.
We recently sat down with Dr. Carol Anderson—professor, historian, and National Book Critics Circle Award winner—to discuss the history of the struggle for African Americans' voting rights, as well as its continuing relevance to racial justice and democracy. Dr. Anderson is the author of numerous books including One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. Below are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Anderson, facilitated by Facing History’s Director of International Strategy, Dr. Karen Murphy.
For an increasing number of communities around the United States, October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a holiday dedicated to highlighting the cultures and suppressed histories of indigenous peoples. This holiday emerged in an explicit challenge to the narratives that undergird Columbus Day—the federal holiday on the same date used to celebrate Christopher Columbus’ purported “discovery of America.” Columbus is among the historical figures denounced this year as a growing movement continues to surface the interconnected legacies of racism and colonialism in the United States. However, indigenous peoples have been calling for a reexamination of how we narrate our nation’s founding for decades through efforts including the campaign for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
As the George Floyd protests continue in cities around the country, debate continues to mount about the future of policing. A wide network of activist groups have been calling for the nation’s police departments to be defunded, insisting that attempts at incremental reform have failed and alternative approaches to public safety must be implemented. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a coalition of House Democrats is advocating an alternative approach, asserting that we can reduce wrongful fatalities within existing systems of policing. As debate continues to rage, these efforts are provoking hard questions about the best possible outcomes of police reforms and whether they would be enough to protect black lives, if achieved.