The Experience of Erasure: Unmasking Black Identity and the Missteps of Whitewashed Stories
Obscurity, Falsification and Systemic Silencing of Our History
Hugh Anthony, PhD
The massive protests in the United States have fueled a ‘conscience checking at the door’ amidst the upheavals of the pandemic and for many nations as their sordid histories have brought on days of reckoning. This the Washington Post described as “their own countries controversial racial histories and policies” and societal constructs built on the principles of inequality, exploitation and injustice. The global protests have created a movement, a moment and a mood, that is important to the essence of black people, their humanity and their stories. The lamentations of the protesters have gaslighted white privilege by unmasking its incalculable damage, rooted in structural, institutional and systemic racism; which is reinforced through police brutality, social injustice and economic oppression of black and indigenous bodies for over five centuries.
By situating the USA, Canada and other western societies storied histories with systemic racism, anti-blackness and white supremacy, is to have an understanding of the crude and inhospitable construct of involuntary servitude. The enslavement of Africans and the dishonouring of indigenous bodies for centuries by white colonizers, history’s sordid lessons of forced assimilation, derogatory subjugation and division, are just some of humanity’s most inhumane atrocities. However, our history as black people did not begin there: it is juxtaposed with the looting of artefacts such as the Mask of Benin ensconced in the British Museum, hidden African art in The Louvre, the Ethiopian Axum Obelisk stolen by the fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini which was repatriated almost 70 years after, and Belgium’s genocide, maiming and torture of Congolese in the Congo[now the Democratic Republic of Congo]. The rapacious exploitation of precious minerals by so-called ‘explorers’ from the African continent is a testament to the subterfuge of an illicit network of exploiters, that continues to create mayhem, massacres and bloodshed of black bodies, even to this day.
The black experience in the US, Canada and other western nations are not difficult to theorize, given the construct of their societies as described by Bell Hooks “socialized within white supremacist educational systems and by a racist mass media”, that misconstrue black people lives and indigenous bodies as ‘not valuable’ and are, therefore ‘unworthy of sophistication’, hence obscuring our histories through the perpetuation of the experience of erasure. Of interest, however, it is John Hemingway who once said “If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa” and as a mighty race we’ve always had the magic, that beats like an African drum in our hearts wherever we are. This gives us our distinctly black aesthetic and cultural identity as well as intellectual prowess, as seen in popular culture — entertainment, sports, the arts and cuisine, but not to mention our contribution to the annals of world history.
Our magic is aural and hyper-visible, while it might be entertaining for white people today; stereotypically they see us and our blackness circulating as blackface minstrelsy in a societal construct mediated by them to perpetuate their power and privilege. The origins of blackface as highlighted by Globe and Mail ‘trace back to 19th-century minstrel shows, when white actors impersonated black people in performances that drew on nostalgia from the days of slavery. These shows often featured violence against black people, who were depicted as lazy, uncivilized and unintelligent.’ They tolerated our magic, but hated our melanin (did I mention the flurry of modern-day tan booths!!). The use of vitriolic narratives to distort our rich histories and espouse the continent of Africa — ‘The Motherland’ as ‘existing outside of history and progress’ with its 54 nations, over 2,000 languages and abundance of mineral resources.
The experience of erasure for black people is the expansion of whiteness and white privilege, hell-bent on the wiping out of our blackness from western societies. This is perpetuated through violent bigotry, grotesque racism and the systematic dismantling or destruction of everything that represents our magic, interests and identity as a people in ‘white’ societies. The societal construct of white privilege doesn’t include our blackness as a collective identity, hence oppression, brutality and injustices for our erasure through their actions laced with deception and impunity which they perpetuate. This became self-evident in the US with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Berry and George Floyd; Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Canada; João Pedro de Matos Pinto in Brazil; and Christopher Alder in the United Kingdom, Adama Traoré in France; and numerous victims of police brutality and the people who have lost their lives due to systemic inequities, oppressive practices and injustices.
Unmasking Black Identity and the Missteps of Whitewashed Stories
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Our voices, languages and stories in Western societies’ racist media have been diminutively demeaned the essence of our humanity, through their body politic of narratives; even though they make the claim that our home and native land is a multicultural plural democracy or the USA, the epitome of democracy and freedom, but for whom? The whitewashing of black people history and stories throughout the centuries is a grotesque indignity to the essence of their humanity. ‘White’ societies in a condescending manner have psychologically invalidated our cultural hegemony, rich history and intellectual agility, still yet they convenient culturally appropriate our creativity, artistry and heritage.
Our history as a race and people is tapered with how we are imbued in white people’s psyche, with their stereotyped perceptions and allegorical stories that don’t see us as human beings — with dignity, respect and our inalienable rights at the core. Daniella Silva in her article ‘Whitewashed and erased’: There’s a reason Juneteenth isn’t taught in schools, educators say’, highlighted the history of systemic racism in the US and how the contributions of Black people have been systematically erased. Which in turn, is meant to amplify and reify systemic discrimination and white supremacy respectively. The following are summative empiricism of erasure or falsification of our history, that highlights the missteps of whitewashing our truth or historical revisionism. Whether they are situated contextually within America’s ‘progressive history of the country’, not its sordid atrocities; Canada “with its progress liberalism and pseudo-inclusive proclivities” versus it being ‘a beacon of comparative progressivism’; or even moreso, the United Kingdom and Spain being the original epicentres and epitomes of banal exploitation, derisiveness of incivility and dastard degradation of black bodies; and the latter fuelling Argentina’s amplified genocide and banishment of black people:
Covert Genocide, Argentina — 1868
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, President of Argentina (1868–1875) instituted highly oppressive and deadly policies to eradicate Black people. Blacks were segregated and lived in squalor with no descent infrastructure and access to healthcare. The ‘covert genocide’ wiped out the Afro-Argentinean population to the point that by 1875, there were so little Black people left in Argentina that the government didn’t even bother registering African-descendants in the national census. The Root highlighted the ‘elimination’ of blacks from the country’s history and consciousness reflected the long-cherished desire of successive Argentine governments.’
Red Summer Massacres, USA — 1917–1923
The U.S. was gripped by a reign of racial terror after World War I when whites rose up to quash prosperous Black communities. The East St. Louis Massacre launched a reign of racial terror throughout the U.S. that historians say stretched from 1917 to 1923, when the all-Black town of Rosewood, Florida, was destroyed. During that period, known as the Red Summer, at least 97 lynchings were recorded, thousands of Black people were killed, and thousands of Black-owned homes and businesses were burned to the ground. Fire and fury fueled massacres in at least 26 cities, including Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, Tennessee; Houston, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Elaine Massacre, Phillips, County, Arkansas, USA — 1919
In 1919, America’s bloody history of racial violence, in the little-known Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, took place in October and may rank as the deadliest. Black sharecroppers, upset about unfair low wages and against exploitation, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labour. A group of local white men, affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumours arose that the sharecroppers were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County. Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, to “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African American sharecroppers (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate — men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Along with the soldiers, a posse of six hundred to a thousand white men, some from Mississippi and Tennessee, were quickly organized to hunt down the killers and crush the supposed insurrection. By the next morning, the white mob was on the march; they “began to hunt Negroes,” according to a signed affidavit by a white railroad detective named Henry F. Smiddy.
Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA — 1921
In the early1900s, the Greenwood District was dubbed “Black Wall Street” was a thriving black community that boasted more than 300 black-owned businesses, including two theatres, doctors, pharmacists and even a pilot who owned his private aeroplane. According to the New York Times “a rarity in an era of lynchings, segregation and a rapidly growing Ku Klux Klan.” Hannibal B. Johnson, a Tulsa-based historian, “it was an economy born of necessity. It wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jim Crow segregation and the inability of Black folks to participate to a substantial degree in the larger white-dominated economy.” However, allegations of attempted sexual assault of a 17-year-old Sarah Page a white girl 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshine led to heightened racial animosity in Tulsa. The tension of disdain of the allegation erupted in 1921, leading to a mob of white people aided and abetted by the National Guard burned Greenwood to the ground and left it lay in ruins. It is one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history. The death toll may have been as high as 300, with hundreds more injured and an estimated 8,000 or more left homeless. Maggie Astor, a political reporter noted that “local officials, seeing a public-relations nightmare, expressed contrition and said they would rebuild the community. Instead, they destroyed documentation and spent the next 50 years pretending nothing had happened.”
Windrush Scandal, United Kingdom — 1948
The British government treatment of hundreds of Caribbean immigrants living and working in the UK wrongly targeted by immigration enforcement as a result of the government’s “hostile environment” policies, which David Lammy, British Member of Parliament described as “grotesque, immoral and inhumane.” The Windrush generation is a group of Caribbean immigrants who arrived on British shores after World War II to address labour shortages and to help to rebuild Britain after the war. Former British Prime Minister, Theresa May in 2012 in her capacity as Home Secretary fueled by hate and divisiveness created a “hostile environment” that violated their immigration rights and viewed them as “illegal immigrants” after 64 years, by stripping them of their rights (granted in 1971) as citizens of the United Kingdom. Indicating that, unless they could prove they were UK nationals with relevant documentation they were no longer entitled to stay in the United Kingdom, causing unimaginable psycho-emotional and socioeconomic hardship.
Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver, Canada — 1967
The first Black community in Vancouver, British Columbia, which became a popular neighbourhood and cultural hub before the mid-twentieth century. Hogan’s Alley, the historic Black community was demolished more than 50 years ago when the city decided to build the Georgia Viaduct Replacement Project over the area, through gentrification and urban renewal schemes the led to the demolition of many of buildings and cultural institutions. The neighbourhood was home to Nora Hendrix, grandmother to rock legend Jimi Hendrix and a cook at Vie’s Chicken and Steak House.
Africville, Nova Scotia, Canada — 1964
Africville was an African Canadian village located just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia and founded in the mid-18th century. In the 1960s, it was demolished by the city in what many said was an act of racism. For many people, Africville represents the oppression faced by Black Canadians and the efforts to right historic wrongs. The Halifax City Council voted to authorize the relocation of Africville residents. Before this decision was made, there was no meaningful consultation with residents of Africville to gather their views. It was later reported over 80 per cent of residents had never had contact with the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee, which was the group charged with consulting the community. See link to the video.
“In a world filled with hate, we must still dare to hope. In a world filled with anger, we must still dare to comfort. In a world filled with despair, we must still dare to dream. And in a world filled with distrust, we must still dare to believe.”
Erasing Black Identity through Deception of Miseducation
The attempted erasure of black experiences of oppression, slavery and systemic racism are interwoven into the societal construct of white supremacy in western societies. Even though it is not taught, Jesse Hagopian, co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives noted that “there’s a long legacy of institutional racism that is barely covered in the mainstream …. curriculum” nor, the indelible contributions of Black people in western societies. The civil rights movement in the USA, is part of the continuum of black resistance to the indignities and injustices black bodies have been subjected to. The lack of knowledge about the contributions of black people in western societies is contextualized in white people’s horrific and dissenting opinions of the truth. The ‘truth isn’t meant to comfort us — it’s meant to move us towards action’ as inferred by Danielle Moodie-Mills, it is a beckoning call for our societies to listen and acknowledge the hard truths about sordid aspects of their histories. Furthermore, Dr. Charmaine Nelson, Professor of Art History at McGill University opined that the obscuring, falsifying and complete erasure of centuries of our history which goes back much farther than slavery. By using the mechanism of ‘systemic silencing’ in the curriculum of western societies, they deliberately ignore the contributions of black or the systemic atrocities to shape their nation’s narrative. There is a concerted effort to undermine and suppress the inherent struggles of black people and their uprisings and resistance to oppression. A gleaning of this was depicted in the film Birth of a Nation, which tells an important story that’s too long been absent from American history, western education and cinematic archives.
“In many ways we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom.”
Dr. Julian Hayter, Associate Professor, University of Richmond
Of interest, however, denying us our histories and our stories, is to perpetuate our wounds and deny us healing in our quest to right the wrongs; and to progressively claim our rightful place and space within our societies. The need for critical intervention on behalf of black people to stop this erasure is found in allyship with the struggle for liberation and self-determination. White people across the globe must be willing to listen, collaborate and help us deconstruct oppression, structural racism and bring transformation to create a just and equitable society for all. The Black Lives Matter Movement is not about denying the existence of all lives, it is bounded up in deconstructing the structures and institutions that have systematically devalued our lives, alienated black bodies and continue the erasure of our experiences. At this moment in the world’s history, there is a rallying cry to stop anti-black racism, police brutality and social injustices against black bodies and indigenous lives, to do otherwise constitutes white supremacy. Accordingly, as Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton theorized, ‘white supremacy is not reconstructed simply for its own sake, but for the sake of the social paranoia, the ethic of impunity, and the violent spectacles of racialization that it calls the “maintenance of order” all of which constitute its essential dimensions.’ The institutions of our collective societies are structured to become the arenas of oppression and brutality, its excess and spectacle, which they then normalize as evidence in the treatment of black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), instead of their care and protection.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “no one should negotiate their dreams. Dreams must be free to flee and fly high. No government, no legislature, has a right to limit your dreams. You should never agree to surrender your dreams.” However, for black bodies and indigenous people in their situated contexts, it is characterized by rigid segmentation, division and subordination, with their dreams premised on negotiated subjugation, tokenism and narratives such as “the first black person to …..or a person of colour to …”; instead of a collective thrust of smashing the ‘proverbial glass ceiling’ with white people to create equity, access and co-existence. By stopping the erasure of black bodies and indigenous people, we can have as expressed by Danielle Moodie-Mills, “the past juxtaposed against the present, where we like to believe we’ve evolved from such savage treatment of other humans” — to define ourselves beyond the act of resistance to domination and move towards a harmonious co-existence. We are always in the process of both remembering the past even, as we create new ways to re-imagine our present, our collective humanity and coexistence; and not our erasure through infamy.
© 2020 Hugh Anthony
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