Critical Race Theory and The Whitney


Christy and I decided to take the boyos on a mysterious trip to New Orleans last month. But what should we do? World War II museum? Check-- tremendous. Aquarium? Check-- but would have been much better in 1988. "What about a plantation tour?" She asked. I initially said no, because so many of those tours end up glorifying the stately homes or speaking of the generosity of the slave owners. Then I read Clint Smith's wonderful book How the Word is Passed (highly, highly recommended; Smith is a poet and a writer, and his storytelling weaves both styles together brilliantly). In the book, Smith tours various places with a history of enslaved people: Jefferson's Monticello, Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison, and Whitney Plantation, near his hometown of New Orleans.

His descriptions of The Whitney were inviting to the imagination and the heart. The plantation was acquired some years ago by a wealthy New Orleans attorney who spent millions to transform it into a place that told stories from enslaved people's perspective. I learned about a rebellion that began at Whitney, involved hundreds of enslaved people, only to be stopped by a combination of the military and local militias. Many of them were beheaded, their heads posted on pikes as a symbol of white power and to invoke fear in any who would attempt any such movement toward freedom in the future. There is a memorial of those heads on pikes at the Whitney. I looked at the faces, brokenhearted at the loss of life-- not just these individuals, but their families and future generations-- and also the cruelty that would inspire people to inflict such violence on others who simply wanted to be free.

Before I read Smith's book I had never heard of The Whitney; after reading, it was a must on our to-do list for NOLA. Put it on yours as well.

In our country, and closer to home in my own home state, there is a massive discussion going on right now about Critical Race Theory. Conservative legislatures and governors are banning its teaching from public schools. Conservative politicians and pundits are shaming military leaders publicly for officer training involving anti-racist teaching. Teachers are being fired for teaching Black history; inclusivity officers are resigning after receiving threats at their homes. But what is Critical Race Theory anyway? 

Well, it's a discipline taught at the college level that examines the implications of racism on society factors; like say, how African American women are disproportionately impacted by the healthcare system and insurance rates. Or how housing discrimination impacts the ability of many African American families to accumulate wealth at a rate anywhere close to their white counterparts. Even something like the interstate highway system: my son Miles (16) brought this up recently. He learned the system was created during the Eisenhower administration to help people flee large cities quickly in the case of a nuclear war. That's true! But CRT might examine the societal implications of the interstate system: the highways were often built through close-knit minority neighborhoods, acquiring property through imminent domain. Where did those people go for housing? What were the impacts on the community? How did the interstate system put the accelerator down on the suburbia/white flight movement-- at the same time as schools were integrated?

As I said, CRT is taught at the college level, not in public schools, so these bans are mostly symbolic; they result in a whitewashing of the history of communities of color. It's OK to teach portions of Dr King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but not his Letters from a Birmingham Jail. Ironically Juneteenth was recently declared a federal holiday after decades of lobbying; it happened at the same time when legislators are changing voting access in ways that target communities of color. Many would consider teaching about Juneteenth a lesson in Critical Race Theory. Of course it's not; it's history. You can ignore it, but you can't erase it.

An example of the hysteria over our current debates over history happened last week in my home state. Why are you so often at the center of these follies, Texas?? Jeez; Florida used to be the laughing stock of America; well, I guess it still is; Texas is definitely in the discussion though. Anyway, a new history book is out called Forget the Alamo. Its authors were invited to speak at the Bullock State History Museum. The event was abruptly cancelled after conservative politicians cried fowl; the book challenges some of the mythology around Texas history. I haven't read it/I am not endorsing it/I haven't heard anyone speak on it. But similar to the uproar around CRT, the issue here seems to be: let's not speak to, espouse, share any opinions that widen our understanding beyond what is already there. The children cannot possibly endure the dialogue and differences of opinion! Ha. They are stronger than we think. Silencing other voices, especially voices already historically silenced, will not move us forward as a people.

When I was in junior high, I took Texas History and US History from Mrs Ryan. I do not remember anything about her classes; what we learned and what was never taught, etc. What I remember was her signature way of describing the classes: tex-I-CAN history and amer-I-CAN history. 35+ years later, I'm still not clear what she meant. Gotta be something about the individual, right?? I can?? But history isn't individual, it's collective. I went on to earn a BA in History, and studying history is still one of my passions. But I have intentionally pivoted to hear from more women and men of color. I have a richer understanding and knowledge as a result. And I still love my country and state! I just want them both to be smarter and more compassionate.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. - Ephesians 2:13-22

The author of that text is thinking about Jews and Gentiles, both groups with distinct ethnic and historical differences, brought together by the saving work of Christ. Christ's ministry was intentionally and purposefully inclusive; to erase the racial/ethnic identities of the Good Samaritan or the Syro-Pheoneican woman, for example, is to rob those stories of significant impact. The identities and traditions of the individuals are not forgotten; what changes is the hostility that once was there. Christ brings reconciliation, tearing down the walls that divide. 

Those faces at The Whitney-- the stories they represent, the lost futures, the forgotten/ignored history-- combined with so many others, still cry out for recognition and respect. Silencing/dismissing/ignoring/forgetting/whitewashing: they only strengthen the dividing walls between people, further delaying the redeeming work of Christ.