You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed.  – Roger Stark in The Monuments Men


Monticello, Built by Enslaved Individuals

Of all the amazing, powerful, horrible, inspiring things I learned in the 20th-century Russian history course I took one semester, this one fact was what stuck with me most:

They changed all the street and city names to names associated with the Revolution.

I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see your town suddenly become an entirely new place, where every street that used to call forth that place’s history suddenly became associated with people and events that were thousands of miles away, to see people murdered by the thousands and to see all memory of them erased from a landscape.

Somehow, this one fact helped me understand the totality of the horror Stalin exacted on his country.

Then, yesterday, when I heard George Clooney’s character say that destroying a people’s history is like erasing them, I remembered the name changes in the USSR . . . and I remembered the people who were enslaved here in the United States, how we erase their memories, too, by ellision and deliberate ignorance.

When we neglect to point out that it was Paul Jennings, a man enslaved to Dolley Madison and her husband, who actually took the great portrait of George Washington off the wall to save it from being burned in the War of 1812, when we talk about how Jefferson built Monticello and don’t mention that he didn’t build anything but just enslaved enough people to have his great home built, when we ignore the fact that our country was built on the backs of slave labor, that our very Capitol building was constructed by enslaved human beings . . . we erase the history of African Americans in the United States just the same way Lenin and Stalin tried to erase much of Russian history in the USSR, just the same way Hitler tried to erase Jewish, gay, Roma history in Europe.

Sometimes in our shame – and our delusion – about antebellum slavery in the U.S., we downplay the amazing contributions of enslaved people.  In our desire to forget this horrible history, in our wish that it hadn’t happened, in our longing to “get past this,” we forget and refuse to look, to really see how very much these incredible people brought us – from great musical traditions, to incredible architecture, to powerful literature, to the very food we eat.  We owe a great portion of what we consider to be “American” to enslaved African Americans.

Until we actively remember their history alongside the history of people like Dolly Madison and Thomas Jefferson, until we celebrate their accomplishments like we do the Pilgrims, until we honor them with street names and their names etched into the side of old buildings, we veritably destroy their history; we erase them from OUR story.  And that’s a shame, a horrible shame.

What were you taught about the contributions of enslaved African Americans?