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  • Jeff James

between juneteenth and july 4th

The dates between June 19 (Juneteenth) and July 4 represent a cultural and historic bridge in understanding what the United States really means from a cultural, political and even spiritual perspective. Do the soaring words found in the Declaration of Independence and the elevated understanding of freedoms bound in the Constitution apply only to white males, as they originally were applied, or to all human beings? Was our country really founded as a "white" country, or is this the unfortunate Euro-centric narrative that has shaped the assumption of whiteness that's kept us unable to move forward in true equality?


How we understand history shapes how we see our future. In my forthcoming book, Giving Up Whiteness (pre-order) I share how I had to re-educate myself on a far more complete version of American history, and in doing so, experienced some significant epiphanies.


Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 5: We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident—For Some of Us:


Often, when these uncomfortable truths are shared about the full history of the United States, the reaction among many proud Americans, especially white ones, is one of defensiveness and denial. These truths prick our pride, burst our patriotic balloons, and threaten our sacred belief that the United States is the greatest country God ever created. Surely anyone who would spread such unseemly historical observations is un-American.
But what if our understanding of the origins and progression of America were updated with a more accurate telling? The filmmakers who produced Gone With the Wind could have showed a more holistic view of African American characters in the Reconstruction Era beyond the house servant, Mammy; they could have included a black doctor, or even a black Senator, and it would have been historically accurate. Of course, they didn’t. How would more truthful expressions of history have influenced the assumption of white superiority stamped on our country, a stamping that haunts us to this day? How would this have changed the paths we chose as a nation through these momentous forks in the road of history? Are we afraid that America would not be great if it were also honest?

Surely, though, it’s never too late to be honest. If I had left my understanding of U.S. history at the point where my public schools dropped me off, I would never have known the full stories of our origins and the foundations of our country, such as how the U.S. Constitution has its roots in the ideas founding fathers learned from the Iroquois Confederacy. I wouldn’t have known the role that African American soldiers played in winning the Civil War, or how hundreds of Navajo “code talkers” played such a critical role in World War II in delivering top-secret messages, or how Cherokee and Choctaw people -pioneered the practice during World War I. I would have had no idea that NASA wouldn’t have made it to the moon without the contributions of African American mathematician Katherine Johnson, until the movie Hidden Figures came out; I would have continued assuming it was all those white guys with buzz cuts wearing starched shirts and ties and horned-rimmed glasses, the ones you see in the newsreel footage. They were the ones allowed in the control room, but they weren’t the only ones doing the critical work.
I wouldn’t have known about Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” —the nickname for the Greenwood community of thriving middle- and upper-class African American entrepreneurs. “Black Wall Street” was so successful that it attracted the ire of surrounding white citizens, who burned down more than 1,200 black-owned homes and businesses and killed hundreds of black people in 1921. This—and numerous other examples of retribution against African Americans who prospered when left alone to do so—flew in the face of the historical narrative I had been taught.
Once I learned not to settle for the white lens of American history, but instead to twist the kaleidoscope to see all the colorful lenses that illuminated a deeper, richer origin and development story for America, a veil was lifted. We are, in fact, not a “white” country at all. We never were. We are a country with a European-dominated historical narrative and white power structures, but with a much more diverse reality. Our story is a lot more than white men achieving great feats of exploration and advancement, with a few side stories of Sacagaweas assisting along the way.
Our founders and shapers were not just the guys in wigs sweating through their colonial garb in the Pennsylvania Statehouse during a hot summer in 1776. Those men should be praised for their revolutionary ideas on democracy, equality, individual rights, and a brilliant government of checks and balances. But we should also call out their immense, hypocritical blindness in failing to associate these rights with women and people of color. We must also equally hold up those who were here first, those who contributed massively against their will, and those who continuously demanded a more genuine and complete application of these rights to all. The white guys in wigs may have written the founding words, and some may have even died for them. But others made life in this part of the world possible, while still others made those words come to life with each passing generation, written into history with their own blood and sweat.

From Giving Up Whiteness: One Man's Journey (Broadleaf Books). Available October 6, 2020, and available for pre-order on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, or your favorite local bookstore.

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Giving Up Whiteness is published by Broadleaf Books

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