A brief history of 400 years of oppression

Last week (was it last week? it feels like a lifetime ago), I learned about the first Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, thousands of freed enslaved people held a parade in honor of the hundreds of Union soldiers they had spent several days exhuming and properly re-burying; the bodies had been hastily buried in a mass grave by retreating Confederate troops only months before.

I was irritated that I had never before heard of the first Memorial Day. Then I saw the George Floyd video.

Then the protests and riots began.


“Los Angeles Protesters were among those who turned out in cities across the U.S. on Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.”
(photo credit: Nam Y. Huh/AP)

The first Memorial Day came back into mind today as I continued trying to process the ongoing peaceful protests and riots across the country. Something occurred to me: the freed men and women who organized the original Memorial Day (Decoration Day) likely had at least two expectations. One, that their gesture would be understood as genuine gratitude for the Union that had, finally, ended slavery. And two, that their gesture would be unmistakably political. The parade, after all, was staged in the very city where the Civil War began: Charleston, South Carolina. Black Americans, in my humble estimation, were signaling that they expected to be recognized and respected for their own outsized contribution to America.

Wouldn’t it also be reasonable for the freed people to expect after May 1865 that race relations in America would be different for their descendants? Some 10% of the Union Army was comprised of black men (there probably would have been more if white lawmakers hadn’t been so afraid of arming too many), and 40,000 black soldiers would die by the time the war was finished. And slavery was over—at least legally and overtly.

After all that bloodshed, as well as 246 years of forced unpaid labor in America and 89 years of building the white ruling class’ monuments to themselves and their hollow documents of life and liberty, the freed men and women must have thought reparations were in order. At minimum, those reparations should have come in the form of good-faith efforts by white Americans to act on a founding tenet: all men are created equal.

And yet here we are again. Protests against racial injustice in America speak a truth that is self-evident.

Protests against police brutality and racial oppression is an American tradition. Watts (1965). Newark and Detroit (1967). 125 US cities (1968). Miami (1980). Los Angeles (1992). Cincinnati (2001). Ferguson (2014). Baltimore (2015). Charlotte (2016). And that is only over the last 55 years. It stands to reason that all the lynching which went unchecked by law & order from the 1870s to the late 1930s was a form of police brutality. Silence was consent. And that resulted in The Great Migration, during which black Americans were refugees in their own country.

Unfortunately, this migration didn’t change the system enough over the years, as there are no major cities in the US—north or south—that have been immune to the unrest over the decades. And even today, smaller Midwest towns and cities (e.g. DeKalb, Des Moines, Davenport, Madison) have seen peaceful protests turn to violence.

It is clear that there is a correlation between oppression and protests-turned-riots here in America. What is not clear, however, is how the protests turned violent. At least not yet with this most recent flare up. I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says with confidence that, “It is a subset of cops” or “It is white supremacists” or “It is Antifa” or “It is the anarchists.” In reality, any and all of these groups could have active provocateurs at the protests. The conditions of racial tension are ideal for any and all of these groups to achieve their aim: to sow discord (albeit for different ends). It is also true that the group(s) responsible for inciting the violence really just depends on which “news” service or social media “friend” can provide an individual’s preferred narrative.

In the end, who instigated the riot in Minneapolis or Anywhere, USA doesn’t fucking matter. The conditions for peaceful protests and riots as they pertain to race are ever-present but often invisible, especially to the white majority. It’s just that now—as at so many other times in America’s turbulent, oppressive past—the conditions exist in which the murder of another unarmed black person is held up and examined in the light from the flames of another burning police car.

Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible…until you let the sun in.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

[Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of 2: [a humble list of resources and American black perspectives]

2 thoughts on “A brief history of 400 years of oppression

  1. Good read, Nick. I pray for equality among the races, and the absence of racial bias, but there is a culture in parts of the black community that perpetuates the poverty and criminal activity that is so common. My heart aches for the majority of these children who grow up lacking a father in the home to provide guidance, love and support. How are they, as a race, supposed to “get ahead” and succeed if the cycle is not broken? No amount of monetary reparations will change that. Change must come from within the black community, and I have heard of programs that try to do just that. The quote from Abdul-Jabbar is spot on. Love to you and Nicole,

    • Thanks for reading, Nancy.

      I found this quote in the associated article a good summary of systemic racism: “Today’s continuing inequalities in education, housing,
      employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.”

      Click to access racism-and-systemic-racism.pdf

      So I come around to my major point in the essay: Let’s look at racism in America by looking at ourselves (white folks), and figure out what (more) we can do to make things more equal. From what I have gathered from listening to and reading works by black Americans, the black community is aware of the issue you pointed to. My belief is that those unfortunate truths are brought on by the invisible systemic racism that we, as white folks, don’t see or experience. What I’m choosing to look at is both the American institutions that continue to perpetrate the invisible racism/bias (e.g. police departments, departments of education, departments of housing, banks, employers, and political institutions) AND the ways in which I can help my fellow human beings be heard and fairly represented.

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