The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, “The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality.” The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I’ve done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate” pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe “too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people.” For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively — pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words — where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see “The Tea Party’s Toxic Take on History” (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians” (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, “Victims have long memories… But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting.” I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the “politics of forgetting,” which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold’s Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles — even “one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!” Hochschild’s details Belgium’s King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this “forgotten holocaust,” save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold’s mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. “The horror! The horror!” Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold’s Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I’ve excerpted Hochschild’s passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it’s highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It’s also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold’s Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about “prophets and rebels” in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold’s Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard — and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.

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