We didn’t tell the Irish, “Time’s up! They’re growing potatoes again. Go back home.” We didn’t tell the Jews, “They’re not killing Jews any more in Ukraine. Go back home.” We didn’t even tell the Vietnamese, “The war’s over. Now go back home.”
We did kidnap Africans. They raised our children, built our homes, grew the food that sustained us, and worked our fields, creating prosperity for the rest of us, and then, and then, and then, we told them to go back home. Yes, there was a time when there was a movement to send the black people back to Africa, though when southern Americans were not busy terrorizing black men for looking a white woman in the eye, they were turning Africans more white.
When we grew impatient with the tiresome Native Americans, we set them on fire, slaughtered them and their children, and sent them to march to Oklahoma, or Canada, or someplace else, where they froze and starved. Indians have been called bad well into my lifetime – the Lone Ranger, and – now listen, “Tonto,” which means “Moron,” was my favorite radio program when I was a child. We put Indians in the dry places so they would thirst, and killed their buffalo so they would starve. When they refused to die off, we took their children away to turn them into “Americans.”
I walked through Dachau, imagining the smoke curling into the air, the crowds being sorted, the Germans eating their schnitzel in comfort and plenty. And at the end of the tour, I felt nothing. Why? How could I be so hard-hearted? I turned away from the last exhibit in their museum of things , and said, how hypocritical you are, Ann. If there had been six million Indians, we would have tried to kill them all. Yet there was no strange fruit hanging from German trees. Even Anne Frank did not feel the terror that African-Americans felt, sometimes every day. At least she could hide.
And we call ourselves righteous. We are Philistines, moneychangers in the temple, we are the pharaoh trying to bring the plague on his slaves. We are Nebuchadnezzar, who wanted to throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (or, as the Rev. William Barber refers to the last of those, “A Bad Negro”) into the fire for not worshipping the golden image.
When I visited Memphis in 1961, there were WHITES ONLY signs, and sharecroppers doffed their hats and lowered their heads when our host came by, “Mawnin’ Mistah Hickman.” Joseph McCarthy lived in my lifetime. Lynching, segregation, serfdom, and McCarthyism are not “history.” They happened in my lifetime.
I thought the hippies had brought some light. They said, smoking their peace pipes, “Hey man, we’re all the same.” They loosed women, wrote music that still inspires us, and refused to kill a made-up enemy half a world away for what looked like, and proved to be, no reason. They dared prison by burning their draft cards. They formed communes so they could be there for each other. But war, criminal political behavior, cynicism, and fatigue broke us. We were reviled for our peaceful thoughts, and humiliated. We were thrown out of the temple because we wore our hair long and the men wore plaid pants. We made ourselves strangers to our own land, and were beaten down.
It takes stamina, courage, and persistence to win. We can look at our black neighbors to see what that looks like, and they still haven’t won. I have energy left from those days of hope and togetherness in my youth. And a lot of anger, too. It’s time for young Americans, and young people living in America even if they are not “Americans,” to grasp the country and make it in their image, but I will help.