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17 June 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 1:17pm

How Trump and swathes of white America refuse to learn either about or from our history

Planning a rally in Tulsa on 19 June was either ignorant or insensitive. But the president isn't alone in considering non-white history a denial of America itself.

By Emily Tamkin

Donald Trump was planning to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 19 June. This announcement was controversial. Not only is 19 June “Juneteenth”, a commemoration of the end of slavery (in 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended and slaves were now free), but in 1921 Tulsa was also the site of the worst race massacre in American history. In the early 20th century Tulsa’s Greenwood neighbourhood was so commercially successful that it was known by some as “Black Wall Street”. However, when a white newspaper reported that a black man had allegedly assaulted a white woman, a mob – joined by the police – attacked black veterans who were trying to protect the accused man. It’s estimated that by the time the violence ended, 300 people – most of whom were black, including children – were dead. One of the country’s wealthiest black communities had been destroyed.

After a few days of public consternation Trump moved the date of the rally. Tim Scott, currently the only black Republican senator, said that he believed Trump and his team hadn’t thought about the historical significance of the date and place. Others have reported that Trump and company were familiar with Juneteenth and the Tulsa massacre, but hadn’t expected such an outcry. The Trump administration, then, was ­either unaware of history or unaware that other people cared about it. 

I do not remember learning about Juneteenth growing up, sitting in history class in my state school (or, as we Americans call it, a public school) in a suburb outside New York City. Nor do I remember learning about the Tulsa massacre or Black Wall Street. I do remember more than one teacher stressing that not all white slave owners were bad people and not all slaves were good people. I remember thinking that this was an odd point to make. We were not talking about character; we were talking about slavery. Who cared what a slave owner was like with his wife and ­children? The relevant thing, for our ­purposes, was that he owned slaves. But then a few years went by and another ­teacher stressed the same thing. 

This was what learning American history meant, at least where I went to school: that white people are history-makers and their version is full of nuance. Calls to ­remember non-white history are not ­considered, at least by white America, as calls to enrich history, or to understand more fully the country, but as a denial and disruption of American history and therefore of America itself.

This is why, last week, when the president announced a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, while most of the country was protesting against police brutality towards black people – apparently because his team didn’t think it would be a big deal – his administration was also taking pains to defend statues of confederate generals and the forts named after them. Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said that renaming military bases would be disrespectful to service members who were at the forts (they were pledged to defend the country, not the name of a particular base, but no matter). On 11 June, Trump himself tweeted, in all capital letters, “THOSE THAT DENY THEIR HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT!” 

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But whose history gets accepted? Whose gets denied? Isn’t it a denial of history to say that confederate statues are about heritage or southern pride or states’ rights when the very reason that the confederacy existed was to fight for the right to own slaves? Isn’t it a denial of history to be more sensitive to a statue than to, say, anyone with any attachment to Black Wall Street and a community violently destroyed?

For that matter, isn’t it a denial of history to say that confederate statues are somehow less insulting than kneeling during the national anthem before sporting events? Confederate generals and soldiers fought and died to break up the country. American football players who kneel during the anthem are trying to bring attention to police brutality and state-backed violence against black people.

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And yet the president is angrily tweeting against kneeling during the anthem, alleging that it’s disrespectful to the flag, while defending the commemoration of those who fought so as to no longer pledge allegiance to the flag. But white people are commemorated, while everyone else has their patriotism questioned. What’s more, everyone else has to prove their loyalty to and place in their country over and over again to fellow citizens who refuse to learn, or care about, or consider this other, non-white history. 

“It’s not so much lest we forget,” goes the line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, “as lest we remember.” If we were actually learning or accepting our history, there wouldn’t be more confederate statues than statues of black women in the US capital. We wouldn’t be afraid of taking down a statue or renaming a fort. We wouldn’t make excuses for having left them up for so long. We wouldn’t tell ourselves bedtime stories about the character of slave owners. We wouldn’t pretend that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. We would know, however, about how emancipation came delayed on Juneteenth, and how civil society and the state have tried to thwart racial equality ever since, which is what white people were doing in Tulsa almost 100 years ago. We would know all that. We would understand all that.

And if we had really learned our history, maybe we’d even expect our president to know and understand it too. 

This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars