Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guest Post: On Understanding (by Rachman Walker)

On Understanding by Rachman Walker

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help God. Amen” – Martin Luther
The hashtag stood out, and gave me pause. I knew immediately what it was and what it meant. #NotYourMascot, it said. I began to read the various Twitter posts –with that hashtag - from so many Native Americans, from all corners of this country, elevating their voices and forcing this country to acknowledge an inconvenient truth that was going to be have to be confronted. The truth, as I saw it was that the disparagement of Native Americans must and will stop. In the following days following the #NotYourMascot hashtag movement, I read so many posts from so many individuals; voices up until now I was not aware of, nor understood. 

The movement caused me to think deeply about the concept of identity, both from a philosophical and personal perspective. What is a Native American? What defines one as Native American, and what is the experience that defines one as such? These were the questions that I asked myself. It would be an act of intellectual dishonesty to apply my life experiences to those questions. 

The fact is, I didn’t know any of the answers to those questions I asked myself. 

I was born and raised in socially-and-politically conscious African-American family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family had the benefit of two parents, who were born and raised in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. From an early age I recognized the disconnect that existed between this country’s democratic ideals and how they were extended – selectively - to this country’s citizens. My parents shared their individual stories of the humiliation of a being a ‘Negro’; forced to conform to social construct (separate and unequal) that – on paper – classified them as ‘American’, but refused to confer upon them the rights that white Americans were given, without hesitation or reservation. My parents’ upbringing and shared experiences were a major factor in their conversion to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam in 1960. This change in their lives was a revelation of sorts – there was a greater spiritual and education understanding of what it meant to be black. My parents – both avid readers – imparted invaluable knowledge to their children that our identity was not defined by our skin but rather our contribution and existence through the past several centuries. My parents taught us about Ancient Egypt, the untold history of the African kingdoms in Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, abolition, reconstruction, the long road we travelled for equal rights, and how the struggle for equality still continues. 

The public education I received was replete with stories of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and how this these men “valiantly” established independence from Great Britain and created a country in a new land. Subsequent leaders of this nation, from Jackson to Lincoln, to Grant spoke of making this country greater, a bastion of democracy. The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, liberty, freedom, and Manifest Destiny. Concepts indoctrinated in our collective memories. 

As an African-American, despite my education and self-awareness of my own history, my understanding of the aforementioned Native peoples was non-existent; they were names attached to our schools (I attended Iroquois Middle School in Grand Rapids; the Iroquois ‘Braves’), counties, teams, and the ugly caricatures created by Hollywood. TV shows like F-Troop, Daniel Boone, Go-Go Gophers , created an image of the Native American as uneducated, innately violent, silly, and incorrigible. I had no interaction with any Native Americans during youth and adulthood. Upon further reflection, in all honesty, I knew nothing about Native Americans, their existence, and their history. I knew of one reservation in Michigan – Isabella – but beyond that, there was no exposure. Therein lies the problem with our society. We live in a culturally diverse land but know so very little about the people who lived within.

Our nation’s history books – as presented to us in this nation’s public education system – avoid discussion of Native Americans and the inescapable facts are that there were thriving civilizations already in existence, on this land, at the time of this nation’s founding. Chippewa, Ottawa, Powhatan, Wea, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Wahpetan, Mohican, Choctaw, Osage, Iroquois, Umami, Algonquin, Montauk, Cherokee, Shawnee, Sioux, Navajo, Tillamook, Cree, Apache, and others. This nation’s history books whitewashed the existence of these peoples – their unique cultures, and most importantly, their history. As humans, we are the cumulative collection of where we have been, what we have been exposed to, and what we have learned – or have not learned. One discernible undercurrent in American society, in particular, is the poisoning of the mind through cultural stereotyping. 19th century literature promoted the idea of Native Americans being either noble or ignoble, and the accompanying negative images legitimized concepts manifest destiny, which gave justification to the elimination of Native American “threats” to American civilization.[1]

In the current age of readily available information, via computer, social media, and other methods, the proliferation of stereotyping has accelerated. Our knowledge of these Indian civilizations must be preserved.
The preservation of their history is no less important.

And that brings this discussion back to the #NotYourMascot movement on Twitter. When I first saw #NotYourMascot, the Washington Redskins immediately came to mind. They are the embodiment of the whitewashing of the history of this nation and how this nation was formed. 

"Redskin" is an offensive, pejorative, ugly term that has been historically applied to Native Americans. According to historian Alden T. Vaughan, "Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians. Slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including skin color, are almost universally slurs, or derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target”[2]. The #NotYourMascot movement, among others, has rightly targeted the Washington Redskins for their incoherent, indefensible defense of a racist name. Dan Snyder, the current owner, is following an organizational tradition of promoting racism, established by the founder of the team.

Their founding owner – the repulsive George Preston Marshall – was an avowed racist who, among other things, created a marching band of feather-bedecked musicians in ‘traditional Indian garb’ and is famously known for his steadfast refusal to sign a single black football player from his team’s inception 1932 (as the Boston Braves) until 1962, long after the team had relocated to the nation’s capital. Marshall’s racist will was broken 1962, when then-US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy threatened to revoke the team’s 30-year lease on D.C. Stadium (as it was called then); the stadium was built with federal government funding and was owned by city of Washington D.C. With no other viable option to retain a segregated team. Marshall was forced to integrate his team, and his first choice was Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis of Syracuse University, who was reported to have said “I’ll never play for that S.O.B!” [Marshall]. Marshall reluctantly orchestrated a trade with the Cleveland Browns, sending Ernie Davis to Cleveland, in return for the highly-talented halfback Bobby Mitchell, who went on to have a successful career with Washington. 

Marshall, however continued on his unrepentant racist ways; Mitchell was the only black player on the team’s roster for several years. Marshall experienced a debilitating stroke 1963 and throughout the late 1960’s his health continued to decline, until his death on August 9, 1969. Even in death, George Preston Marshall’s racism still lives – The George Preston Marshall Foundation, endowed with $6 million dollars, was instructed (in Marshall’s will) that none of the endowment could be used “for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration.”

This is the indisputable legacy of the Washington Redskins. To say otherwise is to ignore history and I’m am not going to do that. I say this now and I will continue to say it - the Washington Redskins – and other organizations, universities, etc., must embrace change and it begins with discarding the racist mascot names and rectifying the past that created this situation

An equally troubling issue is the silence in some corners of the African-Americans community regarding the name “Redskins”; some choose to ignore it, some choose not to repudiate it. This is disappointing when considering the fact that both the African American and Native American communities have been historically underestimated, undervalued, and marginalized. One only needs to look back to the beginning of the 20th century and earlier, to see how African-Americans were portrayed in print and film; vile images of us were used to promote many products from soap to hardware. I ask those African-Americans, who dither about the name “Redskins”, if they would be ok with this image on a billboard along I-495 in Maryland, or as the logo or mascot of a professional sports team?

Now is not the time to forget our shared histories. Our Native American brothers and sisters have also endured much pain and hardship for the last 400 years. African-Americans were stolen, enslaved, beaten, raped, murdered and lynched in the “New World”. The Native American tribes that I spoke of earlier were the victims of the one of the worst acts of genocide in this history of the world – murdered, captured, and relocated. 

Never forget that. 

Remember Manifest Destiny? The establishment of the idea American Anglo-Saxon race was "separate, innately superior" and "destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity and Christianity to the American continents and the world." This view also held that "inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction." This was used to justify the enslavement of the 'Negro' and the expulsion and extermination of the Native American peoples. 

Never forget that.

The uses of offensive imagery to promote a product or a service MUST STOP.
"Symbols of Hate & Oppression"

The #NotYourMascot movement has introduced me a great number of Native American activists, and in the process, they have inspired me to learn more about the history of Native Americans, and they way that they have been portrayed in American society. I am optimistic about the movement, and I am prepared of offer any and all assistance to ALL Native American peoples. We know that this world is lacking in empathy, but citizens of the world, engaging in the noble endeavor of movements that educate - have the opportunity to make substantive changes that will stand the test of time.

It is never too late to right historical wrongs. The first step is acknowledgement, and a determination among Native and Non-Native Americans to acknowledge, atone, share experiences and learn. We must build bridges to our Native American brothers and sisters, and understand their struggles, their dreams and aspirations. Our histories are intertwined, shared experiences have made us resilient, and our unity increases our strength. Individual activists are speaking truth to power. Our voices, too, must be added to the chorus of humanity demanding respect and dignity. I stand in solidarity with my Native Americans brothers and sisters, and I join with them in this common cause.

The days following my exposure to the #NotYourMascot movement has been part of a personal evolution – a rebirth - along with the realization that we must develop new social structures that develop wisdom for progress and fulfillment rather than destruction. These new social structures must link disparate groups who find common ground and understanding, from which flows a renewed solidarity. We must commit ourselves to this endeavor, as it presents so many tangible opportunities for growth, and most importantly – peace in the world. We must take these steps together, not only for enlightenment and understanding, but that we may create a world that is a gift to future civilizations.

As President John F. Kennedy articulated in his “Building Peace for All Time” speech at American University on June 10, 1963: “…and if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we both cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

[1] Ken Nolley, "John Ford and the Hollywood Indian." Film and History23.1–4 (1993): 49.
[2]  Vaughan, Alden T. (1982-10-01). "From White Man to Redskin: Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian". The American Historical Review 87 (4): 918. ISSN 0002-8762

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