Relearning These Truths

On January 9th of 2020, I wrote about my educational journey and how after changing my major 5 times, I ended up a history major. If you’d like to read about it, you can find that blog post here. When I wrote the original post I was at the beginning of my journey with history–I hadn’t even really started yet, aside from within the Middle Eastern Studies Major. Now, I have finished the history classes I had barely started when I wrote the original post. I have also finished a spring term of different history classes. Oh and content warning: this is going to be a fairly history heavy post.

January 9th Dom was onto something: that she was on the correct path. I had the feeling I was on the correct path throughout my entire journey, and as it turns out, taking “wrong” turns only introduced me to the people I needed to meet, taught me the things I needed to know, all so that I would know what my interests were when it came to history. Ending up as a history major really feels like some sort of divine intervention. Regardless of your beliefs, I know I am meant to be where I am.

Once COVID hit, I started taking my classes way more seriously. It probably had something to do with a sudden excess of free time, but I excelled. Moving into spring term, I had signed up to take the second half of US history, focused on 1877-Present and a Greek history class.

When I attended the first Zoom lecture for my US history class, my professor let us know the class was going to be focused on more of the “untold” history of the United States, or that from the perspective of minority groups such as Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. We talked about women, immigrants, and general history as well. The books we were to read were These Truths by Jill Lepore, An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer. I was excited to learn about a history that I have now realized was mostly omitted from my public school education. What I didn’t know was just how important my learning of the early 1900s would be in understanding current events.

Learning about the history of systemic racism, legislature that was weaponized against immigrants and people of color, the history of how our political system developed and why it looks the way it does today, all helped me understand the Black Lives Matter movement, the government’s handling of COVID, the divided American public then and now…the list goes on. It helped me, a white person, understand why the protesting was happening, why some protests turned violent, why that violence was important, and why it is my responsibility as a white person to get involved. I wrote about George Floyd and included some Black Lives Matter resources that you can find here. Please remember that Black experiences and voices on these issues take priority. If I do post something problematic, please let me know. I want to continue to learn and grow.

Being immersed in the history that shaped our modern political landscape was so helpful to me, an American citizen living through events that will fill future history books. It was then that I realized how important the study of history is. I felt like my major finally had a purpose! I felt so engaged in every reading assignment and I enjoyed every paper. I realized that learning about history and, more specifically WRITING about history, made me feel alive and excited and passionate.

I realized that I can accept wanting to be a “writer” as a career, even if I just try to do it on the side. It’s scary to admit that to myself. I have been a blogger since I was in 4th grade and if you think about it, a blogger is just a personal historian. It took me fighting myself for my entire college career to realize I LOVE history (it was always my best subject growing up) and writing.

So, in my continued efforts to share my writing, I wanted to share my final reflective essay for my US history class. I don’t claim it to be perfect (in fact, I got an A- on it so I know it isn’t perfect) but I’m proud of what I wrote and I hope you like it (and maybe learn something from it) too. I also included references at the bottom of the essay.


Relearning These Truths

by Dominique Wilcox

I grew up in a midwestern city called Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha is known for many things, from the steaks to being the home to the College World Series. Omaha is also the birthplace of Malcom X and one of the most historically segregated cities in the United States (See 1 & 2). But I didn’t know either of those things until after graduating high school and moving away. In my American history classes growing up, we learned all about the Civil Rights Movement, or so I thought. But were never taught about how things like redlining impacted the very community I was living in. In my civics class, we toured the Douglas County Courthouse, where there are still bullet holes from a 1919 riot of thousands of white men who attacked the Courthouse because they wanted to lynch a Black man who had been accused of assaulting a white woman (and they did) (See 3). Omaha itself is named after a local indigenous tribe and yet their history was left out of my education as well. While reading These Truths by Jill Lepore (See 4), The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer (See 6), and An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz (See 5), I was exposed to entire narratives of American history that had been mostly erased from my education as a white, middle class Nebraskan. Jill Lepore argued that the course of American history can be assessed by measuring the degree to which our governing institutions have sustained the following political truths, namely political equality, natural rights, and sovereignty of the people. Before taking this class, I would’ve told you that American history proves each of these truths and could’ve supported my argument with white-washed facts and anecdotes. Throughout the course of this semester, I have had to confront my own biases and misconceptions about American history and society, unlearn them, and relearn the truths of American history. Now, I would argue that American history belies the “truths” of political equality and natural rights, while proving the truth of sovereignty of the people.

The United States of America officially became a country in 1776, making the country about 243 years old today. For the first 143 of those years, women could not legally participate in politics. And though voting was technically legalized for all races when the 15th amendment was passed in 1870, discriminatory practices were allowed to prevent minority voters from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. That means that for 189 of the years the United States of America has existed, the majority of the population could not participate in their own governance. Up until the Voting Rights Act, not only were discriminatory practices allowed, but legislation was passed legalizing voter suppression in order to protect the interests of wealthy (and white) business owners who wanted to stay in power. “Voting restrictions against African Americans in the South, Mexicans in the Southwest, and Chinese and Indians in California were justified by business leaders who argued ‘that the voting poor constituted a threat to property’” (Ortiz, 91). For over three-quarters of American history, political inequality was institutionalized and weaponized to further social and economic inequality.

One example of institutionalized inequality was the G.I. Bill, which was passed after the end of World War II.  The bill intended to provide veterans from World War II with educational and financial assistance. According to Lepore, over 8 million American veterans took advantage of these resources, went to college, bought houses, and paid off those loans, which in turn “created a new middle class…and convinced many Americans that the prospects of economic growth…might be limitless.” (Lepore, 529) Though this bill helped many, the resources offered to veterans were limited to white, male veterans, which only furthered political and social inequality. Women’s military divisions were deemed “civilian units” to prevent women from access to the benefits, “on the assumption that they would be supported by men” (Lepore, 529). Suspected homosexual men who had been discharged from the military were made ineligible. African American soldiers were “excluded from veterans’ organizations and…barred from taking advantage of the G.I. Bill’s signal benefits.” (Lepore, 530). Even when measures were put in place to prevent restrictive housing covenants, “the Federal Housing Administration followed a policy of segregation, routinely denying loans to both blacks and Jews” (Lepore, 530).

Not only did the United States government widen the gap of political inequality, they blatantly ignored the natural rights of a huge section of the population. For the purposes of this essay, we will define natural rights as rights that are and should be independent from any culture or governing body. Some examples of natural rights are the right to be free, the right to life, the right to express thoughts, and the right to make your own choices. One example of the disregard of natural rights is the treatment of Indigenous peoples throughout the United States, and more specifically, the use of termination and relocation of Indigenous peoples. The Termination Act of 1953 was used to abolish tribes, allow state governments to assume jurisdiction over the Indian reservations, and relocate people (to sell their land) as they saw fit. Previous to this time, “federally recognized Indian tribes were ‘domestic dependent nations’ and had sovereignty” (Treuer, 255). The act allowed state governments to intervene in criminal cases, levy taxes, and regulate all aspects of tribal life. But the tribes affected by the law “were not offered any chance to vote on, amend, or ultimately reject the legislation” (Treuer, 256). This was not only an example of political inequality forced upon the Indigenous people, but a blatant disregard for tribe members’ natural rights. Not only were they left out of the decision making process to begin with, but their ability to fight against it (and their right to be free) was stripped from them. What resonated with me most was Treuer’s explanation, saying it was “as if the US government had unilaterally extended Minnesota state laws to Canada” (Treuer, 256).  Without any “right” to do so, the United States stepped in and violated the natural rights of the indigenous peoples.

I felt disappointed in my country while learning about its history of mistreatment and marginalization of the minority groups within the United States. It was frustrating to learn of prejudiced leaders taking power and implementing damaging legislation that continues to impact us today. But the individuals within the marginalized groups are proof of the sovereignty of the American people. While I lost a bit of faith in the institutions within the United States, hearing the stories of the individuals who stood up to the mistreatment and succeeded showed me that the power rests with the people at the end of the day. Through the efforts of civil rights activists, performing sit-ins, marching, and even rioting, various Civil Rights Acts were passed, making segregation and racial discrimination illegal. And when the government failed the people, the people came together to take care of one another. A great example of this is the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Minneapolis civil rights group formed to bring awareness to and combat systemic issues of poverty and police brutality towards Native Americans. “Indians…endured, as African Americans endured, racist policing, redlining of residential districts, a lack of adequate schools, and terrible housing” (Treuer, 296) in Minneapolis. In response to these issues, AIM organized patrols that would follow police around the neighborhood and document instances of police brutality. They organized takeovers of abandoned government buildings to “draw media attention to the struggles of Indians and to the federal government’s failure to address them or to meet its treaty obligations to sovereign Indian nations” (Treuer, 301). When the government failed the people, they organized, rose up, and exhibited their power.

Learning about the G.I. Bill and the role it played in furthering social inequality was sobering. Learning about the Termination Act of 1953 and the attempt to remove Native Americans from their land for profit was horrifying. I realized that so much of our current political landscape has a foundation in legislation such as the G.I. Bill, the Termination Act, and countless other laws that intentionally marginalized groups of people. The political and social inequality caused by voter suppression was only exacerbated once the institutions and legislations that ignored people’s natural rights were created and passed. And those institutions and legislations created a lasting impact. For instance, my hometown of Omaha still sees the effects that redlining had on the communities. The part of town I grew up in boasted of well-funded schools, low crime rates, and immaculate communities. The “bad part of town,” that me and my friends were warned against visiting, was named the “Nation’s Most Dangerous City For Black Males” by Ebony Magazine.

Understanding how the history systemic racism and the lack of political equality in the United States is important to understand our current political climate. Throughout this class, we’ve been experiencing a global pandemic. It has been hard to watch the government fumble their way through handling the crisis. With an understanding of the history of government relief programs and learning about the 1918 pandemic, however, it is easier to understand why things played out the way they did. When George Floyd was killed and the riots began, having an understanding of the history of police brutality towards Black Americans helped me understand it in the modern day. All this understanding is helpful to navigate our current circumstances, but useless without understanding the concept of sovereignty of the people.

When we understand that the people hold the power, we are given a way to do something about injustice. It was horrifying and sobering to learn about the mistreatment of countless Americans, yes. It was also empowering to learn what people did about it. When we understand that we can fight back, we can stand up, we can march, we can protest, and we can educate our friends and families, we are participating in the future of American truths. American history did not protect the political equality or the natural rights of all. But the people, who acted on their sovereignty, did. And moving forward, as I take my relearned truths of American history with me, I hope I can do my best to stand up for political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.


References:

  1. The Most Segregated City. (2019, September 22). Retrieved June 17, 2020, from https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/9/22/1879357/-The-Most-Segregated-City
  2. Sasse, P., Huntersays:, S., Williamssays:, S., Omaha, A., Race and Racism Timeline – North Omaha Historysays:, Redlining in Omaha – North Omaha Historysays:, . . . (required), N. (2020, June 02). A History of Racism in Omaha. Retrieved June 17, 2020, from https://northomahahistory.com/2012/12/19/a-history-of-racism-in-omaha/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OytIIur3Ck
  4. Lepore, J. (2019). These Truths: A History of the United States. WW Norton.
  5. Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  6. Treuer, D. (2020). The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.

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