I am 72, a citizen of Thailand. In all my life I have never been identified by the color of my skin.
I have been observing racism in America since I was 18 attending a senior year at Park Hill High School, Parkville, Missouri.
Fifty years on, I now see a different America under the Trump era where white supremacy starts coming out of the closet and racial tension is more like a cold civil war. Superficial changes have been introduced over the pre-Trump years to ease racial discrimination. The word 'Negro' had become an 'N word' and was replaced by the word 'black' and then 'colored' and then 'African American". The word 'Oriental' was outlawed by the Act of Congress banning its use in all official communication. So 'Oriental' is now the 'O Word' in America. 'Asian American', whatever and whoever that means, has become the 'New Yellow'.
Lady Antebellum recently announced a name change to "Lady L", saying that 'antebellum' is a period of slavery before the American Civil War. In original Latin, 'antebellum' literally means 'before war', any war, anywhere, in any colour. Quaker Oats which owns Aunt Jamima syrup and pancake-mix brand announced a planned rebranding of the popular products I so loved during my years in Mayor Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia. Like 'Darkie' tooth paste that was renamed 'Darlie' in 1989 by Colgate-Palmolive (though the Chinese character remains unchanged and still reads 'Darkie'), there will be a new name and a new face for the sweet Auntie. Aunt Jemima had her roots in a 19th-century blackface minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima,” widely performed in the southern slave states, antebellum and postbellum. Uncle Ben's Rice is also up for redesign.
Black syrup and black rice don't matter, I guess!
Across the ocean in the UK, the statute of Cecil Rhodes is also an outdated symbol of British colonialism being targeted. The governors of the Oxford University College voted on 18 June (2020) to remove Cecil Rhodes statute from the lawn of Oriel College. Rhodes estates' funding of Oxford and all international scholarships bearing his name will remain. Pres. Bill Clinton, Sen.Cory Booker, and singer-movie star Kris Kristofferson, are among many American Rhodes scholars given opportunities for graduate studies at Oxford.
Superficial changes on bits of racist memories will not help much. Racism in America needs nothing short of a socio-cultural revolution.
Erasing the memory of British colonialism needs more than just taking down Cecil Rhodes statute. Erasing the UK from the world map won't help either. History has been recorded and cannot be forgotten. It, however, can be understood by just reading, re-reading, and more reading.
I do not have a book club to join in Thailand but I read books from my own private collections to help myself better understand whatever puzzles me in the news.
For the current racial crisis in America, my first read is "The American Republic Since 1887", a 2007 Glencoe textbook my son once used in Walla Walla High School. This helps me understand the sense of history in the mind of youth in America today.
Laura Coates of CNN, while reporting from Minnesota, recommended Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" which I will read after I finish Hugh Brogan's "The Penguin History of the USA" (2001). I have read Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" a few times and plan to re-read de Tocqueville's idea on American prison reform in 1800s again. Of course, I enjoy Toni Morrison's "Love" almost every other Valentines' until now that I am a little too old for romance.
I read the journal of Foreign Affairs' "America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy" By Annette Gordon-Reed January/February 2018. This Harvard law and history professor clearly explains why emancipation of slavey could not abolish white supremacy along with it. The great American experiment in democracy with freedom and equality at its heart declares that “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness". The "Declaration of Independence" of 1776 was written by Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner. The original 13 colonies that agreed to joint the United States, to one degree or another, allowed slavery to continue. The American constitution, signed in 1787, ratified in 1788, and came into force in 1789, counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for the purpose of apportioning members of the House of Representatives.
The first decades of the Republic was built by slave owners by the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson. The civil war from 1861 to 1865 was all about slavery which fortunately ended in the defeat of the Confederates in the South. Slavery in America had been legally abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865 but white supremacy was not exactly 'gone with the wind'. It is the whites who led, won, and lost the war against and for slavery. It is probably a nationalistic reason that propels the thought of tearing down statutes of the southern confederate generals and rid their names off some present-day military establishments, e.g., Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Hood, and Fort Lee.
But what about the slave owner General George Washington Monument on the Capitol Mall?
And what about his face along with that of another patriotic slave owner Thomas Jefferson on Mt.Rushmore? They are just inches away from the face of the great slave emancipator Abraham Lincoln!
The physical Civil War may have ended 155 years ago. But in the hearts and minds of Americans today it seems the War still rages on and with increasing intensity.
Professor Annette Gordon-Reed notes: "Abraham Lincoln understood that the central question for the United States after the Civil War was whether blacks could be fully incorporated into American society."
It appears now in 2020, after 244 years of independence, the American Experiment in democracy has failed to live up to the high praise of Alexis de Tocqueville. It disappointed the world where America had long been looked up to as the benchmark in democracy. Maybe the pursuit of happiness can be found somewhere else.
Even though I do not quite understand racism in America enough to help solve the two-centuries-old social conflicts, but I take comfort in reading, trying to understand, and sharing the pain. I am sure one day a solution will be found.
Life is so short and there are many more books to read if I ever will understand the real America.
15 June 2020
America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy, by Annette Gordon-Reed, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January/February 2018