"To many Americans, February, first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 as Black History Month, is a time to celebrate African-American achievements, ones that were gained against nearly impossible economic, social and political odds. But there is one achievement that is rarely on the list. As a people, African-Americans forced the United States of America to look deep into its own soul and to see the moral bankruptcy that lay there.
That bankruptcy was exposed as African-Americans struggled to live under white supremacy, a system that rendered them ‘sub-persons.’ And even as we fought to make America ‘our home’ — a home that was already brutally taken from Native Americans by white colonial settlers — our black bodies were subject to unconscionable white enslavement, violence and oppression; we lived through forms of carnage, mutilation, rape, castration and injustice that will forever mark the profound ethical failure of this country. By surviving, and demonstrating that the American experiment had failed black people and minorities, we became far more American than those who withheld America’s promise.
On paper, America stood for freedom. Yet that freedom was denied to black people. White America, white people, lived in a profound form of what Sartre called ‘bad faith’ — a state of inauthenticity and self-deception. The white social critic Lillian Smith (1896-1966), who grew up in the Deep South and later wrote ‘Killers of the Dream,’ observed, ‘I had learned that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that we might have segregated churches.’ She also noted, ‘I learned it is possible to be a Christian and a white Southerner simultaneously’ and ‘to pray at night and ride Jim Crow car the next morning and to feel comfortable in doing both.’ It is this bad faith, this ethical perversity, that haunts the history of white America.
And as Frederick Douglass noted, ‘Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.’ And in his speech ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July’ (1852), Douglass said to white America: ‘The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.’The Stone A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research. Rethinking Our Patriotism FEB 6 Can We Live With Contradiction? JAN 29 The Intellectual Life of Violence JAN 26 Our New Age of Contempt JAN 23 Bernard-Henri Lévy: Jews, Be Wary of Trump JAN Readers shared their thoughts on this article. Share your thoughts » As I listened to President Trump’s Black History Month remarks on Feb. 1, it was painfully clear that he didn’t bear witness to that Douglass. It is convenient for him not to know that Douglass. In this nightmare of Trumpism, we mustn’t forget Douglass’s words, just as we mustn’t forget the dejection felt by those who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or in the anti-Japanese internment camps during World War II. Those actions contradicted America’s alleged identity as a nation whose arms are open to the stranger, the outcast; a nation that, in theory, does not discriminate based upon race or national origin.
It is this brutal and contradictory history from which America cannot, and should not, turn away. Just as Jews refuse to forget Hitler’s Germany, we black Americans refuse to forget the often unspeakable atrocities we endured. It is this resistance to forgetting that must be nurtured as we find ourselves in the midst of a dangerous form of antiglobalism, white nativism and xenophobia under Trump’s vision for making America ‘great again,’ a vision closer to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 ‘The Birth of a Nation’ — a film predicated upon white fear and denigration of the black other — than that of an actual nation.
In our current morally perilous moment, it is important to critically consider Trump’s signing of an executive order that temporarily blocks both immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. This action has implications beyond questions of constitutional legitimacy. This ban, along with the plan to build a wall along the United States border with Mexico, is indicative of deeper issues regarding American white nativism and the fact that millions of Americans have become so gripped by hopelessness and fear that they are willing to overlook constitutional violations and ignore their own moral conscience."