Black History and Vindicationalism
by Ezrah Aharone
As we celebrate another Black History Month during these political times of world turmoil and uprise, it’s important for America to project a world image that it has “turned the page” of racism in its own blood-stained history. And while the relevance of this month has even been called into question since the advent of a Black president, I’m reminded of the African proverb that: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be the hero.”
As such, when it comes to slavery and what is popularly categorized as “Black History,” America practices the seductive allure of what I call “Historical Vindicationalism,” where the harsh realities of events and narratives are masked and sterilized, while the end-product of Americanization gets epitomized as being lofty-enough to excuse and acquit the otherwise flagrant inhumanities of its means. Thus, we as African Americans are psychologically expected to deem the inflicted pains of our history as well worth the ascribed value of the prize of Americanization.
Vindicationalism incubates historically and thrives unsuspectingly in various imposed forms and expressions. In government for example, partisan members convened the 112th Congress with a showy display of patriotism by ceremoniously taking turns reading the US Constitution. This was great political theater, especially for the viewing world audience, but what went largely unreported is that they propitiously skipped portions related to slavery . . . knowing that such uncut historical truths would naturally corrode the perceived integrity of the document and vainglory of the occasion. What also should not go unrecognized is that, the political ease of which Congress omitted references of slavery, stems from an overall greater political ease whereby Congress has ignored the unbroken link of causational inequities that 2½ centuries of slavery have systemically and endemically produced.
Upon seemingly inhaling the same vindicationalist fumes, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who gave the Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, remarked in a subsequent speech that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” While she is wholly incorrect, this typifies a pervading psyche and a form of vindicationalism wherein Americans hold unconditional reverence for people and events of the 18th century, in ways that give near-Biblical inferences to the founding fathers and founding documents.
As such, even though slavery is invariably and universally “wrong,” vindicationalism requires that we however are not to regard it as “wrong enough” to repudiate the character or diminish the greatness of the founding fathers. Interestingly, to defend their historical imprint and further their just cause for posterity, Jewish cultures for instance avow unapologetically to “never forget,” while we seem resigned to fecklessly prefer “not to consider” the adversarial conduct of those historically responsible for our harm. Since this would equate to political blasphemy on our part, men of Thomas Jefferson’s ilk are historically depicted at-worst as being benignly “complex and ambivalent,” rather than “immoral and inhumane.”
To limit propaganda, nations should recount history with accurate terminologies since omissions, additions, embellishments and/or misplacements of words can distort facts to the point where false perceptions can become misleadingly disguised as irrefutable truths. Euro-Americans understand both the dangers and advantages of word-manipulations, which is exactly why people in US courts are not merely demanded to swear on the Bible to just “tell the truth” . . . They must swear all-inclusively to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Mark Twain emphasized the importance of word-use, saying “Use the right word and not its second cousin” and “The difference between the right word and almost the right word, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Nevertheless, in another example of vindicationalism, his 19th-century classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was recently cleansed of all 219 mentions of the “N-Word,” which he deliberately used to capture America’s racial “lightning” that still strikes in this 21st century.
Vindicationalism works however to camouflage racism and the horrors of our history into sugar-coated blends with modern media, politics, and education. Students at Grover Cleveland Middle School in New Jersey for example, were assigned to “write catchy slogans and advertisements for why slave labor was the best way to run cotton plantations.” One slogan read: “Got Slaves? Get Cash and Get Some.” Black professor Stacey Patton of Montclair State responded saying: “It is important for students to understand both sides,” while Rutgers University professor Clement Price didn’t have a problem “teaching the past through several lenses.”
Based on the overall vindicationalist nature of America’s system of education, experts and authorities will commonly impart “sides and lenses” that intellectually rationalize and reconcile America’s historical depravity. Conversely, there is no such academic lens to legitimize catchy ads or slogans about the other side to 9/11 or the Holocaust, and neither would the rank and file of Black or White professors intellectually defend it.
In fighting for freedom, Thomas Paine warned about such distorted thinking which satisfies the sociopolitical expediency of others, saying, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” So, if “the truth sets you free,” then we as African Americans need political outlooks and historical interpretations beyond today’s vindicationalist versions and time-warped customs which deify Americanization in ways that are both highly disingenuous and factually untrue.