Too many Amer­i­cans still don’t see black his­tory as their own

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MAR­GARET JORDAN The writer is a mem­ber of the Mont­pe­lier Foun­da­tion Board of Di­rec­tors.

When I re­turn to Wash­ing­ton, the city where I was born and raised, I see places oth­ers do not. At 21st and K streets NW, I see the cheer­ful home of my great-grand­mother, where a World Bank build­ing now sits. On the rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing cor­ri­dor near First and Bates streets NW, I see the proud brown­stone that be­longed to one of our city’s first African Amer­i­can kinder­garten teach­ers, my great-aunt. And on 18th and L streets NW, where oth­ers see bar­gains at the Nord­strom Rack, I see the build­ings my great­great-great-grand­fa­ther Paul Jen­nings owned when he be­came a free man af­ter serv­ing as Pres­i­dent James Madi­son’s per­sonal slave.

My un­der­stand­ing of my fam­ily’s his­tory and their con­nec­tions to Wash­ing­ton has in­flu­enced my life for as long as I can re­mem­ber. I know that were it not for Jen­nings and slaves like him, whose la­bor en­abled Madi­son to fol­low his in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­ests and pur­sue his role as ar­chi­tect of the Con­sti­tu­tion and then as the na­tion’s fourth pres­i­dent, our coun­try would not be the same.

But how many Amer­i­cans share that knowl­edge of our his­tory? How many lawyers and lob­by­ists work­ing on K Street or stu­dents at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity know their neigh­bor­hoods were once thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties and havens for men such as Jen­nings?

In the retelling of U.S. his­tory, there is an in­com­plete and fre­quently in­ac­cu­rate story of African Amer­i­can his­tory. At best, it has been the aux­il­iary ex­hibit, with slav­ery a dis­con­nected foot­note in the larger tome of our na­tion’s story. De­scen­dants such as me, who were lucky to grow up know­ing the names of their ances­tors, know th­ese sto­ries. But most Amer­i­cans have not been taught to see and em­brace African Amer­i­can his­tory as part of their his­tory as Amer­i­cans. In­deed, in the telling of Amer­i­can his­tory, we have failed to fully grap­ple with the re­al­ity of slav­ery and its last­ing hold on so­ci­ety. This has con­se­quences.

We find our­selves in a na­tion bit­terly di­vided in a year that feels oddly out of step with the time. It would be sim­plis­tic to sug­gest that in un­der­stand­ing our past we will find all of the an­swers. But I do be­lieve that with­out deeper re­flec­tion and en­gage­ment with our his­tory — in all of its com­plex­ity — we will not have the foun­da­tion of un­der­stand­ing and re­spect on which progress can be built. With­out it, we re­main trapped in a vi­cious cy­cle pow­ered through com­pla­cence and ig­no­rance.

To­day, we are for­tu­nate to have two new op­por­tu­ni­ties to un­der­stand our his­tory in its un­var­nished form. The open­ing of the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture put a stake in the ground by es­tab­lish­ing the first mu­seum in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal to tell the story of our na­tion through the lens of the African Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

In June, I led the in­vo­ca­tion at a new ex­hi­bi­tion at James Madi­son’s Mont­pe­lier, “The Mere Dis­tinc­tion of Colour,” which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plan­ta­tion of our fourth pres­i­dent. Through sto­ries told by liv­ing de­scen­dants and ar­ti­facts gath­ered over the past 17 years, the ex­hi­bi­tion in­vites vis­i­tors to walk in the foot­steps of slaves, go­ing be­yond the su­per­fi­cial de­pic­tions of slave life. By de­pict­ing the re­al­i­ties of slav­ery, and the eco­nomic, ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal fac­tors that kept slav­ery in­tact in the then-newly cre­ated Con­sti­tu­tion, the ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vides a more com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of the found­ing of our na­tion.

But on a deeper level, both places in­vite us to ex­am­ine not only our painful past but also our present-day bi­ases. They com­pel us to ex­plore how the legacy of slav­ery af­fects our per­spec­tives about race and hu­man rights. And they pro­vide a start­ing point to have the dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions, of which I’ve had many in re­cent weeks, that we need to have to move for­ward as a so­ci­ety. As “The Mere Dis­tinc­tion of Colour” states, “From mass in­car­cer­a­tion, to the achieve­ment gap, to hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the vi­cious cy­cle of poverty, vi­o­lence, and lack of op­por­tu­nity through­out Amer­ica’s in­ner cities, the lega­cies of 200 years of African Amer­i­can bondage are still with us.”

It is only through this ex­am­i­na­tion and in­tro­spec­tion — of our his­tory in its en­tirety, of our di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences and of the pre­con­cep­tions that di­vide us — that deeper un­der­stand­ing and re­spect, and ul­ti­mately progress, will come. It will not be found by push­ing the dark­est chap­ters of our past away but by bring­ing them into the light.

In the retelling of U.S. his­tory, there is an in­com­plete and fre­quently in­ac­cu­rate story of African Amer­i­can his­tory.


A par­tially con­structed slave cabin sits in a field near James Madi­son’s Mont­pe­lier es­tate, in Mont­pe­lier, Va.

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