“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” – commonly attributed to James Baldwin. As the protests have continued lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of history. Some people are acting like Black Lives Matter has come out of nowhere, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
History was one of my favorite subjects in school and especially in college. At Temple University, I took a course by a radically liberal history professor on dissent in America. The professor was a veteran of the 1960s and taught us about the value of protesting and standing up for the vulnerable.
History is important in both our personal and communal lives. My personal history and past affects me today, no matter how much I try to shut the door on it. America’s history also affects it today, no matter how much many people try to claim the prejudices and injustices of past times no longer matter.
If you study history, it becomes quickly apparent that so much of our collective past have been marred by violence. No nation or country is exempt from this, especially America. The story of racial injustice and white supremacy has deep roots in American history and, like Baldwin is quoted to have said, it feels like we’re trapped in it sometimes.
As the BLM movement has taken hold, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the historical instances of racial injustice I learned in school. One that keeps coming to mind for me is the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which was a deal reached between Northern and Southern delegates at the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The delegates at the convention were trying to figure out how to count black slaves in regards to determining the new U.S. states’ total population for legislative representation and taxation purposes. Instead of freeing the slaves and giving them the right to vote, they came up with another idea.
The compromise was to count three out of every five slaves as people for representation and taxation purposes. The Southern delegates were happy with this arrangement because (1) they gained a third more seats in the new U.S. House of Representatives and (2) they could continue to enslave black people for economic exploitation.
This is just one of a long list of examples of how racial injustice has been embedded into the very systems and laws of American life. Of course, slaves would be emancipated after the U.S. Civil War, but then thrown into more complicated systems of economic exploitation.
The point I’m trying to make is this example I’ve given is from the 18th century, but that doesn’t make it any less pertinent. I’ve not done the research, but I’m sure many more modern examples could be found of racial prejudice being codified into law. Of course, the damning weight of police bias and brutality – one of the most blunt instruments of the law – is at the core of the BLM protests right now.
We carry this history with us, every day. As the BLM protests gather steam, I’m delighted but also somewhat horrified at the prospect of what we’re witnessing. Yes, this does seem different from past protest movements. But I also know that conservatives and those in power won’t go down without a fight. This history is in our DNA, and the repressed rage is real.
But, if it means we’ll secure more equality and freedom for a larger share of the American people, and finally live up to our country’s lofty ideals, then I suppose the reckoning should happen.