I remember being taught about manifest destiny in school. The tone of the discussion was like a master story-teller sitting down to tell the kids how the world came to be, how America fought for freedom from tyranny, and how we would spread that love of freedom westward into new territory that could benefit from taming and civility. We would till the soil exploit the natural resources that were being wasted. We would build a middle-class country where everybody would have an equal chance at success and failure, and where we would defend just causes like democratic freedom everywhere. This would be our cause on this planet: Freedom fighters for democracy: America.
Did I get that right? Or was it this…
“Our destiny is to move forward and discover new lands, fight where we have to, but otherwise ‘settle’ the land to our liking. We will take land we think we deserve, from both Mexicans and Natives, by any means necessary, including fake treaties. And while we are at it, we will buy slaves and force them and their children to work for us for free, forever. Because that’s manifest destiny, also. God said so. Right here in the bible. Anything that goes against our self-proclaimed ‘manifest destiny’ will be an act of war against our great country, and therefore, an act against the will of God. And Whiteness. So, protect both.”
These are two views of history that have led us to conflict. America had to justify the horrific act of rampaging across a country shooting everything in their path. I can imagine the internalized guilt. I don’t know how people lived with themselves then — and continue to live with themselves during our longstanding centuries of national inequality.
You might be thinking, “It was a different time. Theft and greed were the norm.” But are we still okay with this?
Each successive generation of White people has been saddled with how to best confront and negotiate change and apology and reparations. While each generation has in some small way moved us forward, each generation has failed to overhaul and repair our mistakes.
The Time for Change is Today
We work hard. We push past blame and are quite resilient. But we sometimes feel, see, and can taste the resentment of our presence in America. Like the tee-shirt I noticed in the southern gift shop window, which read: “If we knew you’d be this much trouble, we would have picked the cotton ourselves.”
We wish you had. But you didn’t.
Here it is: This entire 2020 BLM thrust of people writing and protesting is designed to convince White People that not everything they did was right, and that we need some course correction. We need you to understand this so we can work together to build a more perfect union.
One course correction is reviewing what barriers to equality your company or institution has in place. Does your office pay Black people as much as White people? Do you recruit from all corners of America? Do women get paid as much as men, and further, do Black women get paid as much as White women? Are promotions equitable? When a Black person speaks of being treated improperly, how do you respond?
Bit by bit, find your place in the creation anew of our democracy. Find what you can do — and do the hell out of it.
Cultural Manifest Destiny: Revisioning our history and future
Black voices are now reaching out from alternative social perspectives that will rewrite history to include alternative voices. Because now there is a cultural manifest destiny, such that people of color — academics, politicians, athletes, doctors, social activists, and many forward-thinking White people — are forging ahead to replace signs of past bullying and racial dominance in our cities, our monuments, and the fabric of everyday life.
We are using our magnifying glasses and fine-toothed combs as tools to interrogate the underbelly of every institutional rock for signs of air-brushed history and false idols of democracy. Confederate war generals are false idols that are antithetical to a democratic society, and thus by logical deduction, are anti-American. None of this is new. We are retelling these stories because we feel like superheroes with a cause.
And we take Netflix breaks, where necessary, just like you. We still work and play — at a distance. (My Netflix recommendation: Watchmen)
This is the new manifest destiny that is moving to review our history with a more critical eye — not intended to erase our collective past, but to tell a more complete truth. I see what is happening as erasing the White ritual fantasy that everything our fore-parents did was okay, and that it was God-ordained, and that we are the self-proclaimed greatest nation (and thus the greatest people) the earth has ever seen. This is a myth white people concocted to make themselves feel better about what they had done to others — and what they felt justified in doing again — when the time arose.
We were not ready for the truth that this country was based on thievery. I couldn’t either. That’s why I believed a lot of the same things you did growing up. I get it. Manifest destiny was the rationalization-flavored kool aid many Black people drank, also. We have reached a moment where we need to be mature enough to hear the truth. One of my favorite science fiction books was titled, Childhood’s End. America’s childish version of itself must end.
We, as citizens of the United States of America, were wrong to take slaves from Africa in trade, wrong for stealing land from both Mexico and Native Americans. Monuments in praise of anything related to these three scars on our democracy need to be eliminated. This is what non-White people have been screaming for years.
America’s Past: Keep the good and dump the Confederacy
I have travelled enough to truly appreciate all the good this country has built — and still has to offer. We have done many things right. We think, we create, we build, and we solve problems in novel ways. I appreciate all the good America offers. Even with the bad, most Black folks like it here.
But we’ve just about had enough of chest-thumping that says, “We are just not willing to share the full privileges of citizenship, like voting, getting a great education, having full health care, living in safe communities, and being treated fairly and justly by the officers we pay to protect us.”
You do want equality for all, right? I mean, you do want all lives to matter, right? If so, then step up.
I want to put myself on record that I don’t want to throw out the baby that is America with the nasty bathwater that is the Civil War confederacy. Am I okay with monuments to Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln? Yeah, I’m fine with those. Why? Because they gave us the blueprint for being a great country.
And yet, we’ve never been a “great” country for people of color. Better than many places in the world, but not great. When you hear women, and LGBTQ folks, and Latino/a (Latinx), Asian Americans, Native Americans, non-Christian religious folks and Black folks say, in unison, that “America is Great!” — then you will know this country is great. We have to raise the bar of our expectations. Then we have to achieve those high expectations. Then we can brag about being “great” to the rest of the world — and have evidence.
Washington and Jefferson both owned slaves. I am not okay with that, but they do not deserve the equivalent of the cultural death penalty. We need to temper our shotgun approach to all statues vs. a sniper approach to confederate statues we know are dead wrong.
But to my way of thinking, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln can have statues. (I don’t think we need statues of anybody, but that’s another story for another day.) Many White people in America have a deep need to worship their most entrenched heroes. Black people, too. These are “the big three.” There might be a day when Black people admire these heroes as much as you do. I just implied that currently, we don’t.
Cultural hegemony and the historical narrative of a “perfect America” is suffocating for non-White people. But if I separate out my pain, I see historical White figures who advanced America — and the social conditions of non-Whites. We loved those small advances. But we need much, much more.
My justification for keeping statues of some dead White heroes
Sometimes we just have to forgive. Even if what they did at the time was “the norm” and “everybody did it,” we can certainly judge, and we can certainly choose to never forget the injustice. But there is some peace in acknowledging the injury, acknowledging the good deeds and intent, and moving forward.
I forgave my mother, who divorced when I was 9 years old. She had epilepsy and negotiated hardship in every way to put food on the table and keep those house payments made. Welfare kept us alive, because epilepsy meant you were not allowed to work or drive.
My father leaving us deeply hurt her. She lashed out at those closest — my sister Kathy and me. And when I mean lash, I mean lash. Switches from peach trees, extension cords, and (back when we had them) phone cords. If you’ve never had a beating from a person who grew up tough in Louisiana (or anywhere in the south), be thankful.
Hard lessons where the parenting rule in Louisiana to keep kids out of trouble (my mother’s favorite saying was, “A hard head makes a soft ass,” which was her way of saying, don’t do dumb shit — or you’ll pay for it). Later, as an adult, I confronted her about those beatings and told her about my own pain at her “tough love.”
We talked very frankly about those unthinkable beatings. I eventually forgave her. She cried because she didn’t know the long-term effects I told her: My sister’s (apparent) suicide at 25 — and my fear of divorce (from seeing her pain) and raising children (beating kids didn’t appeal to me). These things, while not her fault, were all unintended consequence of her decisions.
Accepting the complexity of America’s past as we carve a new future
Okay, that was kinda deep. And personal. But we have to make our peace with our situation. I held my mother’s hand as she died of natural causes in 2011 at the age of 84; it was tough letting her go
.I forgave her, but did not forget that damage, nor did I pretend that it did not in some way reshape my future. But I resolved that If I were ever a father I’d learn from her mistakes. I would work to grow. I would also know that her intentions were not to harm me forever. I made my peace with my mother.
Acceptance of the complexity of my mother’s life allowed me to move forward. She did far, far more good than harm. She loved me. She fought the Oakland Public School system in 1968 when I wanted to put up a picture of a slave ship at the Horace Mann annual PTA meeting. She won. I won.
But truth is, parents can be arrested for abusing kids. Black folks generally thought at the time that this “normal” behavior was fine. We joke about the abuse our elders dealt to us. But then Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings went to jail for doing the same thing — child abuse. So, we are rethinking our way forward. Many of us would never do what our parents did to us because we realize there is another way forward.
Swallow that Truth
I think White people realize, with pressure, that their predecessors did wrong, and work at times to correct this past. I know that Washington and Jefferson each did things I despise. And did things, like my mother, that I cannot forget. But I can forgive Washington and Jefferson for living in a time when slavery was the norm for rich folks in Virginia and all over the south.
As we demand change, let us keep a focus on the truly horrific, the truly hateful statues and symbols and names of military bases and the ways our institutions are framed around perpetuating that sinful past.
And once we have crossed that canyon, let’s take a fresh look at our “American Superstar” folks on mountains and statues and school names and street signs and everywhere else cultural scar-tissue remains.
I am one Black man with just one vote, but that is my reasoning, above. I might be convinced there is a better way forward, but until then, I draw my most conspicuous line for removal from visual public consumption all confederate soldiers and symbols and names from defacing our public sphere.
Tubman and Douglass should have statues around America as they are both heroes and very dead
Do us a solid: Quit stalling and Put Tubman on the $20 bill; put up a statue to her in the meantime. Because if we don’t have her up, we won’t remember history. (I hope you see what I did there.)
While you are up there erecting Tubman statue (with her gun, please), find a friendly space for a statue of Frederick Douglass and the many other people of color who have helped move America towards her greatness. Then, and only then, will we forgive the huge disparity in “statue folk” all over this country.
By the way, clear some space for monuments to Bobby Seal, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, and Malcolm X. No? Because they have “tainted pasts?” Because they were on the “wrong side?” That doesn’t seem to matter with other statues, now does it?
Rather than eliminating the contribution of historic American generals and early presidents because of their moral flaws and owning slaves, let’s keep their good contributions and improve on what they started until we are all valued.
Talk to your friends about Manifest Destiny
I’d suggest you talk about manifest destiny to your family and friends. This is a good way to have the difficult conversation every white person has to have. Ask yourself, was it okay to do all the slaughtering and brutalizing of people for centuries? If not, how do I view those acts through today’s eyes? We cannot go back. But we can certainly look back and evaluate our path to this point.
And why would a contemporary presidential candidate even discuss going back to an older version of today’s “greatness?” We need to shed our Fox News version of history in favor of a more collective history that includes our racial scars along with our collective magnificence.
Call it whatever you want to call it — even “PC” — but it is what it is: Long awaited change. Visual representations of oppression are as significant as confederate statues. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and “Redskins” will be retired. That is progress.
And before long, everybody will matter.
Next, Part II: Cultural Manifest Destiny and Why the Washington Football Team Changed Their Name.
© 2020 by Dr. Vernon Andrews. All Rights Reserved.