I'm currently teaching a course at Luther College titled R.A.C.E. (Racism and Christianity Explored). While preparing for class one day, I came across this image of a memorial dedicated to “FAITHFUL SLAVES.”
While I find the monument extremely problematic, its impact was even more poignant for me seeing it after reading a statement by U.S. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, romanticizing the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs).
"HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice," she writes. "They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."
Supporters of HBCUs immediately took to social media criticizing DeVos' statement.
HBCUs did not provide black people with "choice" and "more options." HBCUs were the ONLY choice in a country that denied higher education to black people.
When I expressed my frustration on social media, someone responded, "Ok. So she praised black colleges and how they allowed blacks a chance to go to college that they wouldn't normally be afforded. I don't understand. Why is this so terrible?"
The problem is not DeVos "praising" HBCUs; it's her linking of HBCUs to her personal agenda of promoting "school choice," and in so doing romanticizing America's violent history of racial discrimination. HBCUs did not provide black people "more choices" and "options" like charter and/or magnet schools allegedly do today. HBCUs were created because black people lived in a violently racist and oppressive society that denied them the right to attend "public" academic institutions and that committed unthinkable acts of violence toward black people who tried to attend public academic institutions.
If DeVos wants to "praise" the work of HBCUs, then she should praise them for challenging and subverting American racism and oppression by providing academic opportunities to black people that the nation denied them through racist discriminatory laws.
Praising HBCUs as "real pioneers when it comes to school choice," romanticizes the black struggle against racial injustice and reduces Jim Crow to a benign institution.
This practice of romanticizing America's racist past and treating Jim Crow as a benign institution was recently illustrated in the successful film, "Hidden Figures." The film has been hailed as "a triumphant crowdpleaser."
Part of the "crowd pleasing" appeal of the movie results from the romanticizing of America's racist past and the treating of Jim Crow as a benign institution that was easily overcome through black humility and the valiant work of heroic white people.
In the film, on at least two occasions, Al Harrison, the boss of Katherine Johnson demonstrates how easy it was for good white people to transcend the absurdity of Jim Crow. One occasion is when Harrison is appalled to learn Jim Crow racism has been taking place right under his nose as Johnson has been quietly running a mile (this time in the rain) to use the "colored only" women's bathroom. Disgusted by this, Harrison takes a crowbar and rips the sign out of the wall, telling the crowd of admiring black female onlookers, "No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms…. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color." This was a significant "feel-good" moment in the film.
Another occasion is when the IBM computer produces conflicting calculations needed for the launch and Johnson is asked to do the calculations by hand. After finishing the calculations, she delivers them to Mission Control, where she is prevented from entering until Harrison intervenes and invites her in to watch the launch. Several glances exchanged between Johnson and Harrison emphasize the heroic benevolence of Harrison and the humble gratefulness of Johnson.
The problem with both scenes is that neither incident ever happened.
In reality, Johnson daily challenged the absurdity of Jim Crow by using the "white only" women's bathroom. Harrison never came to her rescue because Johnson never needed him to come to her rescue.
Regarding the Mission Control scene, after correcting the calculation of the IBM computer, Johnson watched the launch from a television in the office because no one in NASA (including Harrison) permitted her to enter Mission Control to watch the launch that only happened because of her calculations.
Through blatant romanticizing of America's racist past, the film's director produces a "triumphant crowdpleaser" that intentionally minimizes the heroic struggles of a black woman challenging the absurdity of racially segregated restrooms and fabricates heroic acts of a white man who transcends the benign institution of Jim Crow.
Romanticizing the past often allows people to feel good about themselves and the past by whitewashing the brutal truth of an egregious past (especially a past that does not reflect well on the ones doing the romanticizing).
Efforts to romanticize the past brutalities of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial discrimination/oppression often serve to make white people less uncomfortable with the white violence of America's racist past. Such efforts also contribute to the ongoing practice of denying the contemporary legacies of racist practices and institutions as well as current day imperatives that grow out of the historical struggles to dismantle such racist practices and institutions.
Rather than romanticizing a racist oppressive past, let us as Americans commit ourselves to working together to make America and the world great, which we can ONLY do by jettisoning the romantic delusion of returning to a great American past that will supposedly help “make America great AGAIN.”