February is Black History Month, and it has me contemplating the meaning and importance of history. History is a story that is re-written over and over again, sometimes to include previously ignored or missed information, sometimes to deceive and cover over shameful events. It’s important for history to celebrate milestones and accomplishments of individuals and cultures, but it is also important for it to record and examine shameful aspects of the past.
Recently, Tea Party representatives in my native state of Tennessee held a news conference demanding that legislators have removed from public school textbooks references to slavery, and especially to the fact that many of the “founding fathers” owned slaves. Texas has already passed legislation that would require textbooks to emphasize a right-wing agenda. And Arizona began destruction of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program based on a new law that prohibits any academic endeavors that—all in one breath—“promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
In other words, white oppression may not be mentioned, discussed, acknowledged, or challenged. Next, those loonies who claim the Holocaust never happened will be getting all references to it removed from the world of education. And then who will they come for? No more Take Back the Night rallies? No more St. Paddy’s Day parades? These new laws are attempting to ensure that no story but that of the rich, powerful, and dominant is heard.
There’s also a move on here in Florida to exclude all state university and community college employees from holding office in the state legislature. (These positions pay around $30 K a year, so most who hold them have other employment elsewhere, not that most faculty members would have the time to do both.) The sponsor of this legislation claims educators have an inherent conflict of interest, though there is already a policy to ameliorate any supposed conflict of interest, albeit it doesn’t seem to be working too well. (At the same time, the elements of the state legislature are seeking to privatize prisons and other public functions, a move that would personally enrich a number of them.)
The people behind these legal maneuvers are people who understand fully the power of education, but who wish to use it, at best, as a public relations forum and, at worst, as a brainwashing technique. All the while, they claim that those who have worked so hard to open history to the realities of millions of lives that were for so long ignored are the ones doing the bad deeds. But ethnic studies programs do not preclude the celebration of white achievement. And slavery can be contextualized as a historical phenomenon that does not diminish the other achievements of the early white leaders of the U.S. Erasing reality does just the opposite, but Tea Partiers and other manipulators of history don’t care about that. All they care about is hiding realities that embarrass them and hiding the many accomplishments of groups of people they wish to discriminate against. It is clear that the agenda here is to stop people from examining history honestly and from multiple viewpoints, and to exclude from the political arena any groups that tend to disagree with them.
I really do believe that the devil is loose, and that many good people will find themselves on the chain gangs once again, metaphorically and perhaps literally. These Tea Party types are driving us back toward the evil aspects of the past, not forward into a better, more egalitarian future. That many of them conceive of themselves as righteous Christians is horrifying.
So, I have chosen to share today the old African-American spiritual tune “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” Although it’s a song wherein Jesus instructs Mary not to cry, this is not equivalent to the positivity movement’s denial of feeling or enforcement of cheerfulness. This is a promise of revenge and justice indicating that the evil will eventually drown no matter how powerful they are now.
This song originated in that dark past when rebellion against slavery and white oppression had to be encoded to be shared at all. It has become a shared anthem for many people, black and white (and Native American, as one source notes that 38 Dakota Indians sang it on the way to their execution by hanging in 1862). I hadn’t thought about this song for a long time until last fall when Bruce and I met up with my old high school friend Ruth and her husband, who played a beautiful old-timey version for us. There are many versions available on the web, but I chose to feature the oldest and least fancy of those I could find—to remind me that, yes, all “messages” have an effect, but that some messages are more honest than others. One version of this song contains the lines “When I get to heaven goin’a sing and shout/Ain’t nobody there goin’a turn me out.” There are some places where Tea Partiers can’t recreate history or exclude people.
These are some other great versions with a variety of styles and instrumentation. You could listen to none of them, or one an hour today or one a day for a week. Or just come back and listen to one when you need to remember that change-ups are always in the offing, that “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.”
Silver Hollers with Natalie Merchant