Last week three consciousness raising experiences came together and added a brick of understanding to the mental building of my self-perception. The first was highlighted by some news commentators who noted the racist descriptions of Ukrainian refugees, by well-known reporters, working for well-known networks. They described those fleeing the conflict as middle-class blue-eyed people who you could be your next-door neighbors, unlike others from places like Africa, (who presumably deserved their fate). Even in this day of social media, the internet, and other easily accessible information documenting the ongoing racism and social injustice perpetuated against black people and other minorities worldwide, this reporting was jarring and rankled my spirit as I listened. It was another telling example of the hidden but dominant narrative underlying the views and perceptions of those who pass themselves off as unbiased purveyors of information. Their taken for granted ideas about people based on skin color is so deeply ingrained as to render them at best untrustworthy, and at worst dangerous.
Later that evening, I was reading a biography of the great British World War 2 liberator Winston Churchill by Lewis Broad. In one of his riveting speeches describing General Eisenhower’s leadership skills keeping the alliance of British and American military together in their fight against Nazi terror declared, “at no time has the principle of alliance between noble races been carried and maintained at so high a pitch.” It struck me that Mr. Churchill did not speak of an alliance between two great countries, or great militaries, or great leaders but “noble races.” It shone a light upon the self-perception of the British Prime Minister and no doubt, his contemporaries. A few years before at the start of the war when Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany, he galvanized British resolve by reminding Parliament and people that if Hitler successfully invaded Britain, he would enslave them all. ‘Better that the last of us should fall fighting than to linger on as slaves.” My heart sings with admiration of the man’s oration, but I could not help but reflect on the fact that at the time Britain was head of a worldwide empire built on the backs of African slaves who were dubbed, the savage race. This fundamental dichotomy between the noble and savage races, kept in place to support the myth of racial inferiority of black people, is still evident in the descriptions of the reporters discussed earlier.
The final experience occurred when I read a piece in the New York Times newsletter “The Morning” to which I subscribe. It dealt with the continuing resistance by some to the covid-19 vaccine. What captured my attention was the story introducing the article that identified an African slave Onesimus as the one who brought the principle of inoculation from Africa and shared it his slave-master, Cotton Mather a widely respected religious leader. It turns out the practice was already carried on in darkest Africa! I was taught since grade school that Edward Jenner or Louis Pasteur, Europeans, were responsible for this amazing discovery. Of course, Mather received very strong resistance to the idea on religious grounds, but it ultimately gained a foothold and saved many lives.
The confluence of these three events illustrates the complex and oppressive history of a people who on the one hand have contributed much to the humanity’s progress on this earth yet on the other, have historically been vilified, marginalized and mischaracterized so systemically and persistently that even we ourselves often believe the lies. We must in the words of Bob Marley’s famous lyric, “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” We must do this with the energy and determination with which Churchill invigorated the British people to deliver themselves from the threat of Nazi slavery.
Conroy Reynolds is the author of God in the Night: How to get through what you can’t get over