Recently the Texas board of education decided to remove slavery from its school textbooks. When a story isn’t told, or its truth is altered, it slips from memory, slips from the accumulated identity people internalize by knowing their common history. As strong as the desire is for all of us to deny the worst we do, if we eradicate the worst, we have no idea who we are. All the social facts, customs, conditions, injustices, ramifications still deriving from that past are now free-floating, causeless. What, then, is the explanation for lynching, Jim Crow, segregation, racism if slavery never happened? Maybe, then, racism doesn’t exist? What, then, was the reason for the Civil War? Was it really states’ rights? Where did all these African Americans come from and why are they struggling socially? Must be their fault. Or, are they illegal immigrants?
It’s for this reason that Bryan Stevenson opened the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama this year. The museum tells the story of racism in the U.S. from slavery to mass incarceration, with a special section: a Lynching Memorial. How would the Texas School Board explain the purpose of this museum? Stevenson’s intent is not simply to say, These were real people; we need to remember them. Also, he wants us to know that they were tortured and murdered for being black. They believed in the inherent dignity and rights of their people and were murdered by other people who insisted that dignity and rights belonged only to them. We all need to know their story or we don’t know who we are. Bryan Stevenson believes that only by telling this story, we finally escape being imprisoned by it – that we can transform it into a story of mutual healing because we tell the same story. Our story. We all played and play parts in that story.
I begin every talk about the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait project with its creation story – how it was my answer to the propaganda, lies, fear, racism, and jingoism that the George W. Bush administration proclaimed to make the preemptive attack on Iraq seem necessary to the American people. I recite it over and over because public and legal accountability are absent. The truth, just like slavery in Texas, has been erased from history. Neither the war makers nor the corporate media wants this truth told. The media shares responsibility for not having questioned the lies, choosing cheerleading for war instead.
Textbooks can’t investigate. That’s not their responsibility. But even if there were accountability – itemizing the lies told to justify the attack on Iraq – it would be impossible to tabulate the cost and horror perpetrated by this ongoing war. The most severe judgment, if any, made in the U.S. press is that the war was a mistake. There is a profound difference between a mistake and a crime. One apologizes for a mistake. People go to jail for crimes. On Veterans’ Day this year (November 11, 2018), George and Laura Bush were awarded the Liberty Medal for their service to U.S. veterans. In reaction to such an award, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But there is no doubt about the intention of the award – to further obscure the truth, to violate history, throw the hood over history before it’s executed. George Bush betrayed U.S. soldiers by sending them to kill and die for imperialism.
Slavery doesn’t go away if we deny it. The Iraq War doesn’t become a Noble Cause if we lie about it and give George Bush a medal. We sure as hell don’t know who we are if we refuse to admit the truth. And people who insist that they do no wrong will continue to commit atrocities and call them good.
I wonder if George and Laura really think they deserve the Liberty Medal. I mean, really? Will it be framed and hung in a special place in the Bush Presidential Library? I guess it should be. The core of the Bush presidency was a lie. The sheer enormity of the lie deserves a medal. Neither the law nor the corporate media nor religious institutions called them on it. And because they didn’t, the history books won’t. Artesian springs of misery will endlessly flow from that lie. Americans will continue to claim we are great because we are good. Trump will want to be as good as Bush so he might qualify for the next Liberty Medal. Trump’s lies, although multitudinous, have not yet killed as many people as Bush’s, so he’s got work to do. Meanwhile we are all imprisoned in the tomb of the Unknowable American. Well, not quite unknowable; other people in the world see through our mask of exceptionalism. That’s OK. We wear it to fool ourselves.