Black History Month > American Exceptionalism


The myth of American Exceptionalism starts with the Christian belief that God chose to bless this land and “our” forefathers more than the rest of creation. This myth asks us to believe that a loving God smiled down on the massacre of indigenous peoples, the brutal enslavement and murder of Africans, and the subjugation of women. History is full of dissent against this belief and the systems that dehumanized people for the sake of our “Manifest Destiny”. The chest pounding pride many Americans feel is based on an edited version of history and a skewed set of metrics that point to us being number one. When people say they want to get back to the days of America being united under God I shake my head. This Black History Month I want those seeking to quell the unrest in our streets to show me any period in American history where we were all united under God?

America needs people out in the streets if we are ever going to be the utopia country singers write songs about. We have to come to grips with our past and the reality that we still exclude people from the dream. Unrest in the face of injustice is more valuable than any peace that allows indignities to continue. The myth of American Exceptionalism denigrates the courage exhibited by people who decided that accepting the status quo was no longer an option for them. Black history Month, at its best, forces us to acknowledge this reality, but too often the stories we hear about Black people’s move from slavery to “freedom” are drained of their rawness. I don’t fault people for wanting to embrace the myth of American Exceptionalism or its younger sibling post-racial society; the truth is much harder to process than a fairy tale: why else would we read them to kids? If you see enough slogans on hats and hear enough politically driven jargon fantasy can easily replace reality. I wish I didn't know Black babies were used as alligator bait in the Everglades, or that Thomas Jefferson was a serial rapist, or that Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist. I wish these things weren't part of our history, but they are. 

We should dedicate this Black History Month to destroying the myths about America that allow bigoted institutions to exist. Black people can only do so much when it comes to destroying the racist ideas that are part of the American narrative. People who aren’t affected by a particular bias have a moral responsibility to make the exercise of bigotry so uncomfortable that it dies. If men don’t allow human resources departments to discriminate against women: hiring practices based on gender would die; If heterosexuals decided tomorrow that we won’t tolerate any form of discrimination against people who fall outside of the heteronormative spectrum: that form of discrimination dies; and if white people decided that institutional racism can no longer be practiced: systems that have perpetuated the myth of white supremacy will die. Individual prejudices are the life’s blood of institutional bigotry. If the lady at the hardware store doesn’t like Black people that’s her right. I won’t waste my energy trying to convince her she’s wrong about her bias. She doesn’t have enough power to use her bigotry to harm those she dislikes; however, if the same woman became a judge or a cop her biases would be wedded to power in a way that could be injurious to Black people: this is where our fight is.  

Race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation have always been factored into how receptive the American family is its individual members. We can’t have an honest discussion about America without discussing these classifications, and how they continue to situate people. Most of the beliefs we hold about each other were passed down to us by people who were taught by people who might not have known better. All of us are built on a foundation laid by our culture. Anyone claiming to have transcended preconceived notions and prejudice is either too naïve to understand how the subconscious works or too afraid to admit what lies in the darkest recesses of their heart. Having preconceived notions or prejudices doesn’t make you a bad person; however, choosing not to confront injustice makes you just as guilty as those who allow their bigotry and hatred to drive them to inflict harm on others. Prejudices become harmful when they cause us to ignore the injustices people face. If you see someone drowning me and don’t attempt to stop them it doesn’t matter that you didn’t harm me, or how much you wanted to help me: I’m still dead.

We can’t continue wasting our time fighting people who don't have power. We should focus solely on fighting above our weight class. Calling out ignorance for the sake of calling out ignorance doesn’t solve anything. Every minute we spend fighting with people who can’t help or harm us is a minute lost. This doesn’t mean we don’t engage the world around us, but we can’t allow people who might not be equipped to discuss complex issues hijack our time: let's quit fighting trolls on social media and fight the ideas that fuel their ignorance. Black History month doesn't have to be a ritual. We can use this month to learn from Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash and then put their strategies in practice.