The last two weeks have been a tough time in America. The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by four policemen in Minneapolis, has unleashed a torrent of protests here and across the globe. Sadness, anger, frustration, and rage have been among the feelings I have been struggling with. I cannot imagine what people of color are feeling, particularly African Americans, who have been dealing with these emotions for over 400 years.
The sin of slavery is a grotesque stain on the fabric of American history. “That all men are created equal” was written by Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence, but did he really mean it? Jefferson was a slave owner, as were many of the signers of this important document. What hypocrisy! How can you say that all men are created equal when you continue to subjugate an entire group of human beings in slavery?
There is much that isn’t taught in American history books about slavery, and that’s sad. There are many reasons for this, and I believe a contributing factor is the ongoing undercurrent of institutional racism in our country. You don’t have to look farther than current events and the current occupant of the presidency to see this for yourself. I’ll get to those things shortly, but first I’d like to delve a little deeper into history.
You can get your learning on the subject of racism from many different sources. For me, the most recent education began when my wife and I went to see Hamilton on Broadway two years ago. What a wonderful show! The amazing thing about it was how Lin-Manuel Miranda used hip-hop music and actors who were mostly people of color to tell the story of one of America’s most misunderstood founding fathers. My first thought when I saw a black man playing George Washington was: how’s this gonna work?
Funny, Ron Chernow had the same thought. Chernow is the author of the definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton, the book upon which Lin-Manuel Miranda based his musical. Miranda also wrote a book about the making of Hamilton, and in it he noted that Ron Chernow was a consultant to him on the project. Chernow questioned the casting of a black man, Christopher Jackson, to play George Washington. Then he saw the man perform. In his own words, Chernow says that Christopher Jackson was the perfect choice to play Washington, as he nailed the mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the tone of the father of our country.
If an authority such as Ron Chernow can suspend disbelief and applaud the choice of a black man to portray George Washington, then I have to agree with him. And I do! Christopher Jackson was amazing in the role. Chernow should know, as he also penned a wonderful biography of Washington. After seeing Hamilton the musical, I bought Chernow’s book, Hamilton, and read it voraciously. Then I read his biography of George Washington. Finally, I read his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Here’s where my education got heavy.
To his credit, Ron Chernow views his subjects through the lens of racial discrimination in America. First with Hamilton and then with Washington, Chernow’s treatments don’t shy away from the topic of slavery and his protagonists’ score in regards to race. With Grant, the narrative becomes much more acute, as his story corresponds to one of the most tumultuous periods of civil rights in America. The Civil War and Reconstruction were two events presided over by Ulysses S. Grant, with spectacular results.
Grant is a forgotten hero of American history. He was the greatest military leader of his time, and he was a champion of civil rights. He supported Abraham Lincoln in the emancipation of the slaves, and enlisted freed black men in the Union army. As president, Grant was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. He oversaw efforts to cement the rights of African Americans, including the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving black people the vote and sending Federal troops to the South to suppress the Ku Klux Klan.
At the time of his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most popular American in the world. Why, then, has this great man’s legacy been so tarnished? Why has Grant basically been forgotten? After the end of his second term as president in 1877, civil rights in America took a major step backward, and it took almost 100 years for many of Grant’s efforts to be realized. Much of the blame for these setbacks can be attributed to a concept I just recently learned of: The Lost Cause. It is best described in this excerpt from a Wikipedia post:
“The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply the Lost Cause, is an Americanpseudo-historical,negationist ideology that holds that the cause of the Confederacy during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. The ideology endorses the supposed virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the war as a struggle primarily to save the Southern way of life, or to defend “states’ rights“, in the face of overwhelming “Northern aggression.” At the same time, the Lost Cause minimizes or denies outright the central role of slavery in the buildup to and outbreak of the war.”
I first heard of The Lost Cause while watching a History Channel miniseries about Ulysses S. Grant, which was based on Ron Chernow’s biography. At the end of the miniseries, The Lost Cause is mentioned as the main reason why Grant’s legacy has been reduced to that of a drunk, a butcher, who just got lucky as the commander of the powerful Union army that was victorious in the Civil War. This same ideology glorified the exploits of Robert E. Lee, the losing Confederate general who is seen as the embodiment of the Southern gentlemen and antebellum society.
Ironically, coming back to current events brought the concept of The Lost Cause full circle. Yesterday I read an article where the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, announced that the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond would be removed. This statue has been a focal point of demonstrations recently, as a massive symbol of the Confederacy and a continuing insult to African Americans. At the press conference, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said this: “It’s time to put an end to the Lost Cause and fully embrace the righteous cause. It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality — symbols that have literally dominated our landscape.” This is a remarkable statement from the leader of the city that was the capital of the Confederacy!
Finally, I leave you with a conversation I had yesterday with my coworker and friend, John Rowe, who is a black man of Panamanian descent. In the course of our normal workday, I asked John how he and his family were doing during the pandemic and protests. Sadly, he told me of a conversation he and his wife felt obligated to have with their teenage daughter, about how to act if confronted by the police. This breaks my heart but is not surprising, as I told John of a story I had just seen the day before about a very similar conversation. Apparently this is a rite of passage in the black community, which is really sad.
I cannot put myself in John’s shoes, as I can’t imagine having to have this talk with my 14 year-old son. It’s a helpless feeling knowing I can’t do much to change this narrative. What I can do is be more vocal in calling out racism when I see it. When you shine a light on evil, it tends to dissipate, like cockroaches scurrying away. The current occupant of the White House may have done us a favor by fomenting division and attempting to normalize racism, bringing many alt-right Nazi racists out into the open. It’s our job to expose these people for what they are. Only then will we truly realize and live the idea that Black Lives Matter.
I highly recommend reading Ron Chernow’s Grant for a thorough understanding of the history of institutional racism. It was a gut-wrenching read for me. You can also get the short version by watching the History Channel miniseries, Grant.