Part One: The Beginning
History…does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. — James Baldwin
Item # one: June 2019. A Salvadoran father and his daughter drown trying to cross the Rio Grande River. Children endure inhuman conditions in concentration camps while their parents are deported. Toddlers are brought into court without translators. Mothers are told to drink from toilets. How, we wonder, can our government treat people with such gratuitous cruelty? Has it ever been this bad? Surely, say the pundits and many innocent liberals, this is not who we are!
Item # 2: July 4th, 2019. While Trumpus and his stormtroopers churn up the National Mall and the streets of Washington with military hardware, I take a break from writing and go for a walk in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. A series of chance turns takes me to the grave of Fred Korematsu, the Japanese American who fought his conviction for evading internment in World War Two concentration camps for forty years.
Item # 3: June 2021. On “Meet the Press”, Chuck Todd mentions Critical Race Theory:
…parents are saying, “Hey, don’t make my kid feel guilty”…And I know a parent of color is going, “What are you talking about?”
Nikole Hannah-Jones responds:
You said, “parents,” and then you said, “parents of color.”
Item # 4: January 2022. Mitch McConnell snorts,
African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.
But I’m not here to only bash Republicans; that’s too easy. Consider Joe Biden’s infamous “praise” of Barack Obama in 2007:
I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.
If you don’t get the irony, you really need to read this and take some time – lots of time – to consider how the nation has determined exactly who is privileged to live within the pale of “us” – the good, the true, the exceptional, the innocent – and who is not, how often those definitions have changed, and how violently whites have responded to them.
…the immigrant plays a curiously ambiguous role in the narrative of American innocence. Immigrants are outsiders who in aspiring (or threatening) to be in transition to becoming insiders, force insiders to question something we quite ambiguously refer to as the American Dream. To the Paranoid Imagination, however, they threaten to pollute that dream.
A further ambiguity is that their condition is qualified by their skin color (and of course, for generations, by their gender, their sexual preferences and the degree of choice they had to come to this land – as conquerors, slaves, indentured servants, refugees, unskilled workers, graduate students or anti-communists). The story of American immigration announces a welcome to all that is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There may be no poetic line better known in the entire world. But this story – the Melting Pot, or the Ellis Island myth – is rife with such contradictions that for centuries its adherents have required an entire mythology to resolve them – a massive, ongoing, national, cognitive dissonance. Myths are powerful. When facts meet myth, it is the truth that must change to fit the myth.
One could also argue for the simple statement that the story of American immigration has always been about those (white) people who were welcomed and those others, including the conditionally white, who were merely tolerated.
Immigrants – those who are just arriving, and especially those of darker skin – also provide a convenient mirror for those who desperately need to convince themselves that they are the real Americans, that they are “nativists.” Such people consumed the earliest versions of the myth of American Innocence, in which the story, quite early on, utterly forgot about the actual, original inhabitants of the land.
We mythologists think in terms of the growth and triumph of a grand story Americans tell themselves about themselves, followed by its tantalizingly slow dissolution, along with the sense of how newer, more inclusive stories have yet to be formed. Individual people have always populated this story, have suffered, risen up against it or perpetrated inconceivably terrible violence to reconfirm it. But seen from this perspective – and we have to – all the players in this play, whether innocent or guilty, have been the victims of historical, generational trauma. And, as players in this story, they embody it for all of us. We are all Americans. No one is completely innocent, and no one has completely escaped the trauma.
Mythologists understand that every national narrative has its shadow, the part of the story we have suppressed so deeply that we’ve forgotten it, perhaps out of fear of what I have called the “return of the repressed” (see Chapter Four of my book). The shadow of E Pluribus Unum insists that we can’t speak about how we became one people without considering settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, capitalism and the construction of “whiteness.” We must address how those privileged enough to achieve entrance within the pale were granted permission to help determine who was outside the pale, how some might be admitted within the pale, and how they might be forced to impale others on the projection wall of otherness. We must understand how defining others as outside has been the primary way in which most of us have known who we are on the inside.
The Myth of American Innocence, built up as it was on a mountain of contradictions, is inherently unstable. In every generation, groups of people – the “Others” – rise up to point out these flaws in the national story and demand inclusion. In reaction, privileged groups circle the wagons to reaffirm the old stories, occasionally making the minimal possible effort to modify them.
Why should everyone become familiar with these events? What’s the big deal? Perhaps in looking at them from the perspectives of women, people of color, Native Americans, Muslims, people of unconventional sex or gender, disabled people or very recent immigrants, we can understand the base mode of American identity (white, male, Christian, able and heterosexual), why so many of us cling to it so tenaciously, why so many are so deeply threatened by anyone who questions it, why they persist in seeing people as “the Other”, and why they go to such efforts to try and maintain this story, even to the extent of supporting con-artist politicians and preachers who steal them blind. This of course is the story that Howard Zinn told in A People’s History of the United States. For a related story – how intellectuals, especially professional historians, have and continue to go to such great lengths to ignore or discredit writers like Zinn, see my essay, Old White Men: Historians as the Gatekeepers of American Myth.
We can read this story depending on the deeper narratives we subscribe to. Optimists will claim, “Look how far we’ve come!”, while pessimists (or realists) will see repeated examples of oligarchs persistently manipulating the dreams and desires of millions for their own purposes. Yes, it has been this bad before, and no, we cannot become who we were meant to be (if we can still think in such terms) without fully acknowledging who we are and who we have been.
So here is a detailed timeline of how America has negotiated that fine line – the border – between “us” and “them.” It’s a long and exhausting list, but I suggest that it falls into the “Don’t look away! Bear witness!” category. These events happened to real people. Notice two patterns of events that have regularly pointed out the discrepancies between values and norms, or between official policy and actual behavior, or between mythic narrative and reality:
1 – The regular occurrence of mass, genocidal violence (the word “mob” appears 25 times, “riot” 38 times and “massacre” 122 times), almost exclusively perpetrated by white people.
2 – The activity of the Supreme Court (composed for most of its existence by old, white – and for its first 70 years, primarily slave-owning – men) in the intermittent expansion and contraction of definitions of who is and who isn’t an American with full rights and freedoms:
Please take your time as you read, and consider Thom Gunn’s poem at the National AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park:
Walker within this circle, pause.
Although they all died of one cause,
Remember how their lives were dense
With fine, compacted difference.
The 16th and 17th Centuries
1452: Pope Nicholas V issues the papal bull Dum Diversas, which authorizes Portugal to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”. Further bulls will determine that European powers may claim land not inhabited by Christians. France and England will also use this “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify their claims on the New World.
1507: Books begin to use the word “America” to describe the entire New World.
1521: African slaves revolt for the first time in the New World, in Santo Domingo.
1525-1866: 12.5 million African slaves (30% of whom are Muslim) will be shipped to the New World, of whom 10.7 million will survive the Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. 388,000 will be shipped directly to North America. They will produce ten million offspring, of whom four million will be alive at the start of the Civil War.
1537: Pope Paul III forbids the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
1539: Hernando de Soto executes 200 Timucuan warriors in the Napituca massacre.
1540: De Soto massacres 200 Choctaw at Mabila.
1541: Francisco Coronado massacres 200 at the Moho Pueblo.
1585: The English first attempt to establish a colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina.
1599: The Spanish massacre 800 Pueblo people at Acama.
1600-1800: Over half of all immigrants to the British colonies will arrive as indentured servants or slaves.
1601: Spaniards massacre 900 Tompiro Pueblo people.
1605: Following earlier explorers and traders, the French under Champlain map the area around Plymouth Harbor. They encounter a native settlement called Patuxet, a large cluster of Wampanoag villages on the site of the future Plymouth Colony, with a population of 12,000.
1607: The English establish Jamestown.
1610: The English massacre several dozen Paspahegh people near Jamestown.
1611-1618: Virginia law institutes capital punishment for speaking ill of the King or missing church three times.
1616-1619: Diseases introduced by the Europeans decimate the coastal Native population from Maine to Rhode Island. The English seize the opportunity:
There hath, by God’s visitation, reigned a wonderful plague [that has resulted in] the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left … any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein. We, in our judgment, are persuaded and satisfied, that the appointed time is come in which Almighty God, in his great goodness and bounty towards us, and our people, hath thought fit and determined, that those large and goodly territories, deserted as it were by their natural inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our subjects. – King James I, The Great Patent of New-England
1619: The first African slaves arrive. Virginia recognizes the Church of England (Anglicanism) as its official religion.
1620: When the Pilgrims settle at Plymouth, they discover that “the ground was strewn with the skulls and bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none were left to bury them”. The epidemics kill 75-90% of the native population. New pestilences will continue to visit the native communities – the “Great Smallpox Epidemic” of 1633, the “Universal Sickness” of 1645, the “Plague and the Pox” of 1650-51, and the “Bloody-Flux” of 1652.
1622: The Powhatan uprising kills a sixth of the English settlers, who retaliate by ordering the extermination of all Powhatans. In the Pamunkey Massacre, the English poison the wine at a peace conference with Powhatan leaders, killing 250.
1623: Massachusetts Puritans massacre the Wessagusset.
1624: Of the 300 children shipped from Britain to Virginia between 1619 and 1622, only 12 are still alive. One-fifth of New England immigrants are indentured servants.
1626: African slaves revolt for the first time on mainland North America, in South Carolina.
1627: Carib slaves are brought to Jamestown from the West Indies. The Puritans ban maypoles.
1630: Virginia sentences a white man to be flogged for “defiling his body in lying with a Negro.”
1636: Harvard College is founded. Connecticut Puritans kill 400-700 Pequot people in the Mystic River massacre.
1638: Puritans force the Quinnipiac onto the first reservation.
1641: The Dutch governor of Manhattan offers a bounty for Indian scalps. The Puritan churches are radically democratic, rejecting centralized authority. Their Massachusetts Body of Liberties is the first modern bill of rights, but it justifies slavery, which will be legal in the state until 1780.
1643: The Dutch kill 500 Lenape and Wappinger people in the Pavonia and Pound Ridge massacres.
1644: Massapequa massacre.
1650: Puritans ban William Pynchon’s book The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.
1656: The first Quakers arriving in America are beaten and imprisoned. Any ship arriving with Quakers on board is fined and forced to return them. Any male Quaker caught in Massachusetts will lose his right ear. Four will be hanged.
1657: New Netherlands upholds the Dutch Reformed Church and refuses to allow other denominations to establish churches.
1661: The Spanish outlaw Pueblo ceremonies in New Mexico.
1662: Virginia determines the free-or-slave status of all people born in the colony according to the race of the mother only and removes any penalties for raping Black women. With this change, enslaved people are forever, while servants completing their indenture will be freed with money and land. Slaves begin to outnumber indentured servants.
1663: Slaves revolt in Gloucester County, Virginia.
1667: Virginia law declares that baptism of slaves does not exempt them from bondage. Theologians cast blacks as the Biblical Children of Ham, whom God cursed to become slaves to whites.
1669: Virginia removes criminal penalties for enslavers who kill slaves resisting authority.
1670-1680: Of 5,000 indentured servants transferred to Virginia in the decade, 241 will manage to acquire their own land.
1670: When Anthony Johnson, one of the original Africans from 1619, dies, his lands are given to a white colonist, even though Johnson has children who expect to receive their legal inheritance. This decision is considered legal because, as a black man, Johnson is not considered a citizen of Virginia and has no right to land ownership.
1675: The Great Swamp Massacre.
1676: Occaneechi, Peskeompscut and Narragansett massacres. Bacon’s Rebellion occurs in Virginia. The alliance between white and black indentured servants nearly destroys Jamestown. Upon regaining control, the government responds by hardening the racial caste system to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings. Indentured servitude is discontinued; one is now either white or a slave.
1680: The Pueblo Revolt drives the Spanish out of New Mexico. Concerned about rebellion, Virginia prohibits slaves from gathering in large numbers.
1688: The Spanish massacre the O’odham people.
1689: The Spanish destroy the Zia Pueblo, killing 600. England bans the persecution of Quakers in the colonies. Descendants of Indians and escaped slaves begin to flee from the South Carolina Lowcountry to Spanish Florida seeking freedom and gradually form the Gullah culture of the coastal Southeast. They develop the Afro-Seminole Creole, which they speak with the growing Seminole tribe. Communities of black Seminoles were established on the outskirts of major Seminole towns.
1691: Virginia outlaws marriage between blacks and whites.
1692-1693: Authorities accuse over 200 people in the Salem, Mass. area of practicing witchcraft and execute twenty. Philadelphia police are empowered to stop and detain any Black person seen wandering about.
1693: The Salem witch trials occur. Philadelphia police are empowered to stop and detain any Black person seen wandering about.
1693-1704: The Spanish re-conquer New Mexico. The American colonies are importing over 20 million pounds of mostly slave-grown tobacco per year to England.