[While I don’t consistently cover current events in this space, I do try when I can to connect the histories, stories, and issues on which I focus to our contemporary moment. But sometimes it’s important to flip that script, and to contextualize some of those contemporary connections. So this week, I’ll do that with five ongoing American stories. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on them and on any other current stories!]
On two reasons why the ongoing conflict in Missouri is nothing new—and one why it is.
In the spring and summer of 1917, white residents of East St. Louis, Illinois repeatedly rampaged through the city’s African American communities, attacking citizens, burning homes to the ground, and generally brutalizing and terrorizing the city’s African American population. The massacres (euphemistically dubbed “race riots” in the national media, mostly in order to deflect the blame onto the boogeyman of African American “rioters”) were one of many such events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; from Wilmington (NC) in 1898 to Tulsa (OK) in 1921, and many others in between and after, again and again African American communities were brutalized and terrorized by white mobs. I would argue that we can’t begin to understand the events unfolding in a different East St. Louis (location of the troubled community of Ferguson, Missouri) until and unless we better remember these repeated massacres.
Earlier this fall, a tree was planted outside the U.S. Capitol in long-overdue remembrance of Emmett Till, the young African American boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in August, 1955. Only a few days later, yet another unarmed African American child was shot and killed—this one, Tamir Rice, was playing with a BB gun when he was shot and killed by police responding to a 911 call warning of a black “man” with a “gun” (it seems to me that both of those terms need the scare quotes). It’s nearly impossible to keep track of how many young African American men (mostly) have been killed in the last year or two; most by police, although of course there are the Trayvon Martins and Jordan Davis’s in the mix as well. So when the African American community in and around Ferguson responds with outrage and anger to the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, it’s important to remember that they are also responding to this much broader, decades-old and still entirely ongoing history of repeated such killings, in- and outside of the “law.”
Yet while Ferguson is thus deeply and thoroughly contextualized in longstanding American histories, I would also argue that it has the opportunity to represent something new: a site of profound communal conversation about and activism in response to those histories. I wrote earlier this fall about the role that social media has played in such conversations and activisms, and would reiterate that point here. But I’m also thinking, for another example, about this wonderful post by my friend and Guest Poster Robert Greene II at the U.S. Intellectual History blog. On the streets, on social media, and in the blogosphere, among many other interconnected sites and spaces, events like those in Ferguson are being connected and contextualized, linked by a wide and deep variety of voices to any number of salient histories and stories, issues and ideas. Do such connections and conversations have the ability to change things? We’ll see—but the question itself illustrates this new side to familiar histories.
Last current story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other current events you’d highlight?
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