In honor of Black History Month, my friend Benji prompted the following thoughts…
I’ve been pondering this since he posted it, and decided a blog post would be a better format to flesh some of my ideas out.
Most of the misinformation I received growing up about black history specifically, and people of color in general, weren’t outright lies as much as they were omissions, half-truths, and misdirections. These were far more subtle which made them, I believe, far more sinister than outright lies that could easily be debunked if we had the time, will, and access to information that we do now.
Here are some that I’m thinking of….
This one is kind of weird. It’s one of those memories that I think about often but have never had an opportunity to tell as a story. This is my chance, and I’m not throwing away my shot.
I had a Sunday School teacher who once told me that the blood of black people is different than that of white people. Whereas our blood cells look like a fat, round disk that is depressed in the center (like a doughnut without a complete hole,) those of black people are shaped like crescents, flattened and bent. This, she said, is why the texture of their hair is different and why they are more prone to diseases such as Sickle Cell Anemia.
Nothing about this is true. Variation in hair texture has nothing to do with variation in blood makeup. The other two facts I would label “truth adjacent.” Two facts placed next to each other are true. For one, African Americans are more at risk of Sickle Cell diseases than white people and others. And, at the same time, the main feature of Sickle Cell disease is that red blood cells are malformed. But having a genetic disposition toward a particular disease that affects descendants of a certain region is not the same thing as having a different kind of blood.
The whole story seems silly, and on the surface it is. But it doesn’t take much lurking behind the curtain to realize what was at work here. White Supremacy isn’t just bad people in white sheets who want to do violence against people of color. It is more about perpetuating a myth that the white “race” (as if such a thing existed) is the baseline for humanity, and every other race, especially people of color, is some variation. Suggesting black people have different kind of blood is a more subtle take on the old trope of comparing them to other primates or saying black women are actually men. It is meant to create distance, to “other” people of color.
“Many Slaves Were Treated Well”
White men love this one. I once took a tour of a former plantation in Louisiana where one such older person informed the young black female tour guide of this fact, but he did it in the classic form of asking a question. “Isn’t it true that many of the slaves had better lives on their plantations than they did once they were freed?” Certainly not the first time for her to field this “question,” she replied, “Well, sir, while there were variations in the way some of the plantation owners’ property was treated compared to other property, and while the lives of free slaves were always going to be more difficult when their former owners were still allowed to hold positions of power in society, I’m not sure we can ever consider the lives of humans who were considered property as anything but tragic.”
He spent the rest of the tour lagging behind, rolling his eyes.
I was in my 30’s when this happened, but I had been hearing this one pretty much as long as I’ve been taught black history by white people.
“The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about ‘states’ rights.'”
Well, yeah. But it wasn’t about a states’ right to ban cotton candy at baseball games or to pick chili as their state food. Every historical document points to the reality that the primary right the southern states were fighting for was the right to own people.
“Let’s not forget, it was Africans who sold Africans into slavery.”
This is like the corporate, scaled up version of saying that a woman who is raped shares some of the blame. Its only purpose is deflect guilt onto the victim.
“Yeah it was bad for black people, but when ___________, then everything was made right.”
For one, this has never been true. Every right that people of color have fought for against the powerful in this country has always been followed by a response by those in power.
Slavery ended, then after a VERY brief period of our country seeking to make things right, Jim Crow laws go into effect.
The 13th Amendment banned involuntary servitude, freeing the slaves, but then the next clause “except as punishment for crime” created the conditions for mass incarceration of black people.
Brown vs. Board of Education integrated schools, and white people have been finding ways to dis-integrate them ever since.
Giving an old white guy a pass at not “properly” honoring the flag during the national anthem, while literally requiring a national sit-down scolding of black men who choose respectful ways to protest.
Story after story after story, this is the American story: White Supremacy. Whether it is behind sheets or behind the tired calls for “civility,” we have always centered whiteness, and demanded everyone else catch up, even while we throw tacks on the track behind us.
What are some Black History Lies you were told, or Black History Erased? Share them under #blackhistoryliesiwastold and #blackhistoryerased