Msgr. Paul V. Garrity: Learning our history

“One person can lead a horse to water but 10 people cannot make it drink.” We all know the truth of this piece of wisdom. As we come to the end of Black History month, we have all been led to water, the question is whether we have decided to take a drink.

Black History Month was raised to a national recognition status by President Gerald Ford in 1975 but has its roots in the 1926 establishment of Negro History Week by historian Carter Woodson. He was the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and believed that “…the teaching of black history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within broader society.”  

For the most part, the history of our nation has been chronicled by white men and women. Many of us white people grew up with the myth that was propagated by “Gone With The Wind” that slavery was a blessing for Black people who were treated very well by their owners. 

Black Wall Street was a prosperous 35-square block of homes and businesses in Tulsa Oklahoma that was completely destroyed by white rioters on May 31, 1921. It was a race riot touched off by an allegation that a Black teenage boy had assaulted a white teenage girl. 

It is a terrible and sad story but shockingly it only became part of the Oklahoma school curriculum in 2020. It recently got national publicity when our former president, unconscious of its history, hosted a rally in Tulsa. 

The slogan “Black Lives Matter” began in 2013 as a hashtag on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of an unarmed teenage boy, Trayvon Martin. It got more prominence after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. 

It is also currently being used by the Black Lives Matter Global Network which is distinct from the slogan itself. It burst into widespread usage after the video recorded murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. 

The mantra “Blue Lives Matter” surfaced in the aftermath of the homicides in 2014 of two Brooklyn, New York police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. It was meant to counter anti-police sentiment that was on the rise due to the deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers. 

When it gets used as a retort to “Black Lives Matter,” it comes across as being tone-deaf and racist. Of course, “Blue Lives Matter,” but that is not the point. “Black Lives Matter” calls attention to systemic racism that continues to be a cancer on our nation today. 

Racism is not an African-American problem.  It is a problem or a disease within white America. Because the history of people of color in our nation has been largely ignored by history books and average school curriculums, there is widespread ignorance of the despicable ways in which African Americans have been dehumanized and treated going back to Colonial times. 

Isabel Wilkerson has written a book that should be mandatory reading in high schools today. Those of us who are out of high school should also make it a point to read her work. “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” is a well-researched exploration of the most horrendous parts of our nation’s history. 

When the Third Reich wanted to learn how to subjugate the Jews in Germany in the 1930s, they studied the way in which Black people were mistreated, tortured and murdered in our own Jim Crow South. 

Wilkerson also explores the parallel caste system of India that relegates “untouchables” to the bottom rung of the social and cultural ladder. In excruciating detail, this work records the first hand experiences of thousands of people over three centuries who were treated like animals and subjected to the vilest and most inhumane treatment imaginable. It is a hard book to read with an importance that cannot be overstated.  

According to the FBI, domestic terrorism is on the rise in our United States. Fueled by racism, white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment, it is becoming a clear and present danger. One antidote is education about our real history and how our nation came about. White people never think about being white or the privileges that come from the color of our skin. Black and brown people think of this all the time. As the complexion of our nation changes, white privilege is impacted and can seem as if something is being lost or taken away. Without an understanding of our true history, good people can fall victim to this mentality,

This is why Black History Month is so important. The philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”  This is even more true if we are ignorant of our past in the first place.  

Msgr. Paul V. Garrity is the former pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Lynn and the current pastor of St. Brigid and Sacred Heart Parishes in Lexington.


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