After a year that included the shootings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Jacob Blake, we still lack a national consensus to end racism and the violence it has hurled upon Black Americans. The year 2020 has been a year of revelation for some, but it has been a year of minimal progress for others.
Only last week did the board of Virginia Military Institute vote to take down a statue on campus of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Though a federal judge has now ruled that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) can raze Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee, the monument is not yet on the ground where it belongs.
We must continue the work of dismantling white supremacy. By age 12, I fully understood the layers of violence that maintained racial injustice in America. During a swimming class, a student tried to drown me because I was Black. On another occasion, a group caught me alone in a classroom, beating me to the floor, because I was Black. The interpersonal violence reinforced the structural segregation that I experienced every minute of every day for decades.
As a young educator, I longed to teach a course on racial violence. Drexel University gave me the opportunity to create a syllabus of racial hatred in 2002. Teaching that syllabus opened my eyes to the challenge ahead of us.
It was an evening course, meeting for almost three hours once a week. The class fulfilled a core requirement; two dozen students enrolled. I remember thinking that I would have to offer extraordinary reassurances to the Asian and White students in the class because it was very unlikely that they had read the material previously. There were only two African American students in the class.
My first lecture focused on the early 19th century, examining White violence against Blacks in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Cincinnati’s 1829 riots were an extension of laws prohibiting Black migration to Ohio, which existed almost from statehood in 1803. Philadelphia’s Flying Horse riot in 1834 destroyed a Black neighborhood, displacing dozens of families. The determination to maintain racial segregation through terrorism became a pattern that continues today.
In 1851, White terrorists (who called themselves “slave catchers”) tried to invade the town of Christiana, Pa. With the support of U.S. marshals, they attacked the farm of William Parker, a free African American. The terrorist leader was killed in the assault, but the abolitionists who repelled the invaders faced charges of treason.
My students, working from the syllabus I called, “Collective Racial Violence in the United States,” were not prepared for a history that had been kept from them. Nor were they emotionally ready for a sustained confrontation with this evidence. The material turned their heads in countless ways. They learned about festival lynching — advertised assemblies to murder criminal suspects before their trials — and the use of planes, cannons and firebombs to destroy neighborhoods, businesses, any evidence of Black excellence. It was easy for them to see that this history shaped a century of racial terrorism that still influences law enforcement practices today.
This knowledge shattered their assumptions about white supremacy. After three weeks, they would leave class to weep, or to vomit. After six weeks, they began to sob uncontrollably in the classroom. Their horror was so jarring that I decided a week after the course ended to break the content into multiple courses over several semesters to prevent the emotional toll I had inflicted on them.
Even then it was difficult to maintain. After years of social activism that often confronted threats and violent action, my choice to teach a course about that tradition required a degree of caring (for myself and my students) that I lacked initially. Seeing my students glimpse the burden that Black people carry constantly forced me to find a different path. Unlike my other courses, there was no pleasure in teaching this carnage.
Over the next 15 years, I taught suburbanization, the evolution of American media, enslavement at the Cape of Good Hope and the economic evolution of global markets. All of the courses involved aspects of our violent history but did not put them at the center.
Then, in 2017, I published the racial hatred syllabus online. Countless Americans now know about the entire communities that were nearly reduced to memories, in Eatonville, Fla., and Independence Heights, Tex., and Pergolaville, N.J.. Our national park system has a chance to preserve these places as it does plantations across the South.
We must do more to honor the people and places lost to violent racism. We must pull down every Confederate statue and every place where its long-disgraced battle flag appears. Otherwise, we sanction continued violence against our own people.
It has been a year of education for the nation. But we still have more to do and much to learn.