My wife and I spent the day at the National Museum for African American History and Culture. It is the most well organized and presented museum I have ever attended, and even after spending 7 hours there, we still felt like we didn't quite see everything. They make incredible usage of artifacts, history text, and audio and video accompaniment to present the sweep of African American history and culture in a way that we found very compelling and informative.
I've prided myself on knowledge and understanding of American history, including (I thought) African American history, but I was surprised by many of the gaps I found in my knowledge. Most notably was the state of black-white relations and how it related to society and culture in the centuries prior to the American revolution. We often tend to think of history, and especially American history, as a work in progress that moved from injustice and oppression in the direction of equal treatment, fairness, and justice as the years went by. But I learned that there was actually significantly less race-based disparate treatment and oppression in the century before the American revolution than in the century afterwards. For a few prominent examples, we can look at lower-class uprisings like Bacon's Rebellion in the late 17th century --a worker's uprising in Virginia. I was surprised to discover that these conflicts were mostly colorblind. Large numbers of workers, including slaves and servants, and made up of both white and black individuals, unified against the ruling class for various instances of corruption and other grievances. These rebellions were all put down eventually, but they show us that even in colonial America, there was no intrinsic or 'natural' drive to bad feelings between people of different racial backgrounds. So while we can point to obvious improvements and progress in American history, we can also point to massive backwards steps -- and these were not natural or accidental, but conscious decisions by those in power at the time. We must be mindful that such backsliding can happen again, and we are not immune to the same sorts of mistakes our ancestors made.
So what happened to change this more unified relationship between black and white Americans? What I discovered was that these rebellions sufficiently frightened the ruling classes that they made major and directed efforts at destroying the possibility that poor black and white people might work together against those in power. While interracial marriages were relatively common in those early centuries of colonialism, those in power made new laws outlawing this, fearing good feelings between black and white workers. While slavery hadn't been entirely race-based before, this was changed --only at this time was the law changed such that babies were born into slavery depending only on the status of their mother. Numerous other laws and practices were instituted, directly aimed at instilling feelings of superiority among white people, inferiority among black people, and no possibility of the two groups working together as equals.
From these direct efforts came centuries of brutality and oppression. It's important to note that this was not an accident, and it wasn't due to the decisions of a single person at a single time. The ruling class, long before America rebelled against her colonial masters, decided that white people must not get along with black people. A slave born in 17th century colonial America would likely have had a much better life than a slave born in the 1850s.
It's also important for Americans to note that the Civil War, and the end of slavery, only begun the process of ending this oppression. There were serious efforts to mandate equal treatment for a few years after the Civil War, and many black office holders were elected in Southern states, but these were abruptly ended in the 1870s, and that brutal white supremacist attitude returned by force of law and custom. Jim Crow laws, relying on deceptive laws, brutality, theft, and outright murder, ruled in much of the country and essentially terrorizing black Americans for a century after slavery ended. All of this had its roots from a fear of ruling classes that black and white people might work together to change things and make their lives better.
It's an uncomfortable truth that for most of American history, local, state, and even the federal government was an active and even terrorist enemy of black people (and other minorities) in America. We should take this history, and its modern reflections and ramifications, into account when we address modern grievances like conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color.
I urge anyone in the DC area to visit this museum as soon as they can, and put aside the better part of a day to experience it. And I urge anyone visiting to get their tickets well in advance -- it was very crowded when we attended.
Andy Crawford is the writer of two novels: the fantasy adventure Sailor of the Skysea, and the satirical fantasy The Pen is Mightier, which is perfect for fans of Game of Thrones. You can find his books in paperback or ebook on Amazon below.