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Thursday, July 28, 2011

July 28, 2011: Advancing Through History

I’ve made no secret, here or in any other arena (outside of the classroom, at least), of my profound disdain for the Tea Party (the current political movement, not the thing in Boston back in the day). There are lots of reasons why I feel that way, but if I had to boil it down, I’d focus on two distinct but interconnected elements: the TP’s striking and foundational antipathy toward cultural “others” (as evidenced by one of its primary rallying cries, employed partly in direct opposition to the Obama presidency but also in response to issues like illegal immigration: “I want my country back!”); and its deeply oversimplified and almost entirely inaccurate vision of American history (as evidenced by the coupling of its use of the Revolutionary-era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to a platform that bears no meaningful resemblance to the ideas and ideals of the Founders). Both of those elements were ironically but clearly on display this past weekend at the inaugural meeting of the South Central (Los Angeles) Tea Party; the event (per the story at the first link) was emceed by an African American minister named Jesse Lee Patterson, and focused mostly on expanding Patterson’s portrayal of the NAACP as “no different than the KKK” and an organization dedicated to “causing black Americans to hate their country, to hate what’s right.”
Patterson and his fellow speakers apparently paid lip service to the NAACP’s incredibly rich and vital history, arguing that the organization had done good work in its “nascence” but is no longer needed. But as with so many of our contemporary political and cultural issues, the more genuine and accurate narrative is significantly more complicated on two interconnected fronts. First, I would argue that our communal awareness of the NAACP’s history, especially in its founding and formative years, is at best hugely limited, and at worst actively distorts the organization’s truly and impressively radical identity and work. That history really represents some of the most inspiring characteristics of the early 20th century Progressive movement, from the organization’s multi-racial and diverse group of 1909 founders (including W.E.B. Du Bois and three very distinct white Americans: Kentucky blue blood William English Walling; Mary White Ovington, a suffragette and the descendent of generations of New England abolitionists and reformers; and Romanian immigrant and New York social worker Henry Moskowitz) to its sophisticated and to my mind very American form of socialism (one concerned not with the strident attacks and violent goals of Russian Marxism but with a genuine and impassioned interest in issues of class, poverty, labor, and reform). And from the outset the NAACP wedded those voices and political perspectives to a complex blend of occasional protest (such as its responses to the film Birth of a Nation [1915]) and continuing research, reporting, argument, and advocacy (such as in its vital magazine The Crisis [1910-present]), balancing both reactive and proactive efforts as well as any American social organization ever has.
It’s that balance in particular that illustrates the second and even more salient complication of Patterson and company’s arguments. It’s true that African Americans have advanced significantly in the century since the NAACP’s founding, but many if not all of those advancements have depended precisely on the efforts of organizations like the NAACP, both in its reactions to the century’s worst racial abuses and excesses (the continued horrors of lynching and Jim Crow, individual horrors like the Scottsboro case, anti-Civil Rights violence, and many others besides) and its proactive contributions to advances in housing, education, the post-World War II integration of the armed forces, and many more. And while, again thanks in significant measure to the NAACP and its peers, the issues facing 21st century African Americans (and thus all 21st century Americans) are very distinct from the ones that faced Du Bois and his colleagues in 1909 (or King and his colleagues in 1959, or Jackson and his colleagues in 1989), it is beyond naïve to argue that such issues no longer exist or (as a co-speaker at the Tea Party event claimed) that they no longer have anything to do with race. Moreover, while combating our contemporary issues certainly depends on an awareness and engagement with them in their present complexities and realities, it can only be aided by a concurrent knowledge of history, both generally and in terms of the NAACP’s vital and still relevant role specifically.
We all know the cliché that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. There’s still plenty of truth to that one, but in this case, as in so many on which I’ve focused here, I’d say that it’s just as accurate, and less well-accepted, that those who oversimplify and falsify history greatly limit our chances for a stronger future. If African Americans, and all of us, are going to keep advancing, it’s going to be through our shared history—and it’s that “shared” part which renders the Tea Party’s version so woefully inaccurate and inadequate. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A great resource for finding early issues of The Crisis:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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