Black face

One area I struggle with writing about is race. It is such a divisive subject and I fear I might give offense.  One of the issues I sometimes face is that I try to find some positives in current race relations when comparing them to the past, but even this can cause conflict. However, with recent events in Virginia, I thought I should say a few words from a historical viewpoint.

One reason I try to see positives in race relations is that I do believe we have made some. As I teach about slavery and the Civil Rights era, I am amazed at the treatment of black Americans in the not so distant past. Yet I also see the great changes brought on by the movement. I think it is important to see the positive changes because if we only look at the negative, it becomes difficult to have hope in the future. If we never see progress in the past, how can we hope to make change in the future? 

Yet as I try to take a positive approach, I am constantly reminded of our shortfalls. The most recent example is a picture of a man in blackface standing next to someone dressed as a Klansman on the governor of Virginia’s yearbook page. The Governor is now claiming he was neither of the people. I am not going to debate here if he should keep his job. Make those decisions yourself. What I am shocked about is that a yearbook from a medical school allowed such a picture in 1980. 

In class, when discussing the Civil Rights movement, I try to emphasize to my students that it was not that long ago. My parents were children when Emmett Till was murdered and eighteen when Dr. King was shot. I am only one generation away from black children legally not being allowed to go to the same school or park as white children. Yet, when I try being positive, I can also say that the situation has improved in my life time. Look at the progress when it comes to segregation. Then I realize that 1980 was my life time.

There have also been several episodes of racism from Oklahoma students in the past few months. While I do believe racism must have no place in our culture, part of me wants to believe it is out of ignorance. Young people today are much further removed from the Jim Crow era and they may not understand the meaning and significance of blackface and lynching. I remember as a young student not understanding why it was wrong to refer to a fellow black student as boy. That was just something we said—“those are my boys” when referring to friends. I said it about my white friends. Why not my black ones? It was not until later that I understood the historical significance of the use of “boy” and recognized why it was wrong. The problem is that even as a young child I understood the significance of the “N word,” and there is no way that the use of that word in recent videos can be because of ignorance.

I do worry that the use of the “N word” is becoming common again. One of the complicated reasons is that white youths have embraced black music artists, which can be seen as positive. In many rap songs, the use of the word is frequent. In both my current university and my past one, I have asked that music be turned off in the gym because of the use of the “N word” in a song. It’s a word I find offensive. On every occasion it was white students playing the music, not black students. I do not want to take on who can use the word and who can’t. I just think the average student hears the word much more now than when I was in school because of entertainment, and whether they realize it or not, subconsciously it is in their heads. 

I recently re-read one of Dr. King’s speeches entitled “The Ethical Demands for Integration” from 1963, which I think sheds some insight into my internal struggle. In the speech Dr. King explains the difference between integration and desegregation. Even though many use these two interchangeably, he argues they are very different and that desegregation is not enough. Desegregation removes the legal ability to deny blacks equality. Today it is illegal to refuse service to anyone based on their color. Dr. King calls integration “a positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities.” Desegregation, he said, was enforceable, while integration is not.

Desegregation and integration seem to be the difference between the positive and negative. We have made great progress in desegregation but are still lacking in integration. I still believe there are positives in integration. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with my family, my children included the MLK monument on their lists of must–sees. To them Dr. King is not just a hero for African Americans, but should be seen in the right way, as an American hero that we can all celebrate together. I’m not sure there will ever be an end to racism; as long as there are separate races, there will be judgement from some. That does not mean that as a nation we cannot continue to work towards integration. One way to accomplish this is through education. Education can at least remove the ignorance that leads to the problem.

As we work towards better integration, maybe we can sometimes stop and see the positive even though we have a way to go. We need to continue to reject the negative and the hate. At times, though, recognize that the negative often comes from ignorance and use it as a teaching moment. My youngest son’s elementary teacher spoke to his class about the KKK. He and his classmates have seen the picture of blackface and the Klansman, and I am assuming that was a reason for the lesson. From what my son has told me, I applaud his teacher for helping to stomp out hatred and racism. As with everything, understanding the history matters and knowing the history might help us fix the future. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.   Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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