But soon after the Civil War ended, a different question began to be asked that echoed the debates about enslaved Africans’ humanity: “What does it mean to be civilized?” This question emerged in the early years of the industrial age and America’s dawning global ambitions, and it reflected an anxiety born of a fading masculinity as men engaged machines to do the heavy work and as the nation sought to flex its muscles.
When it came to Black people, the answer to this question invited the most meanspirited answers that were deployed to justify denying African-Americans the fruits of American citizenship. Politicians routinely declared that Black men were not suited to vote because they were not civilized. The same logic was deployed to keep Black Americans in substandard housing and low-wage jobs, since they were “not ready” for the rigors of a civilized life. And when all else failed, it was routine to make declarations of “jungle savagery” when Black men were accused of sexually assaulting white women.
Although African-Americans have had to endure arguments, policies and practices that declared they were not fully human, that they could not be citizens and that they were not civilized, African-Americans have been undaunted in their desire to be considered all of the above.
These desires have not been satisfied, in part because African-Americans’ contributions to this country’s history have been ignored. The erasure is as stunning as it is thorough. The role of Black labor in building the Southern economic infrastructure has been routinely denied. The contributions that Black scholars have made in the humanities, the life sciences and the natural sciences have been lost because of segregated workplaces. The work of Black creative artists has been disregarded since it became appropriated into the national cultural apparatus.
These denials exact a great psychological toll. The writer James Baldwin understood as much when in 1965 he soberly declared, “It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”
Mr. Baldwin understood that the ability to rationalize away Black Americans’ place in the “system of reality” was due to a powerful commitment to not knowing the Black past. In the same text, he continued with a heartbreaking question: “If one has got to prove one’s title to the land, isn’t 400 years enough?” This question, along with the others that are central to the study of the African-American past, is laden with a complexity that tells a story about our own capacity and willingness to ever realize the ideal articulated in the country’s founding document, namely that all people are created equal.
The willful failure to appreciate that many people — the dispossessed, the poor, the enslaved, even the immigrants from “less desirable” countries — have contributed to an exceptional national experiment leads people like the Proud Boys and a few too many members of Congress away from being the true patriots that they claim to be.
Jonathan Holloway is the president of Rutgers University, a historian and the author, most recently, of “The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans.”
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