August 20, 2020

WILK | HIST 2020: Unlearning American Lies

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Before the whir of life-changing events and the unprecedented-ness that has characterized the past six months, I was bent over my notebook for Black Radical Tradition in the U.S., taught by Professor Russell Rickford, Africana and American Studies,  rushing to sloppily jot down his last sentence: “Americanism is ahistorical.”

More recently, sitting on my couch instead of a desk and staring not at slides but the rolling credits for Spike Lee’s most recent war drama, Da 5 Bloods, I heard an echo of Prof. Rickford in the back of my head. And since then, I’ve been reminded of those three words so often that I now hear them in my own voice, as I read people’s denialism about the United States’ militant capacity to conquer civilians. Specifically its own citizens.

Over videos of federal agents deployed on the streets of New York, Portland and Chicago, Homeland Security Investigations officers brutalizing protestors and plainclothes cops snatching people into unmarked vans, outrage and shock have been weirdly focused on where this is happening, and whose citizens it’s happening to, rather than the simple fact that it’s happening. These reactions reveal a need to create distance between America and the evidence before us, and to pretend that distance is as geographical as it is ethical: “A little graffiti and some toppled statues and we turn into freaking [Al]Fallujah. This is madness!” “Trumpistan.”  “We are the new Middle East.”

“This isn’t Cuba, this is America.”

But, of course, it is.

I thought that epiphany became mainstream when Childish Gambino rapped about it two years ago, along with the fact that none of this violence and complete disregard for human rights has ever been un-American. Hoards of mindless comparisons to countries in the Middle East and South America are supposed to communicate some unthinkable descent into chaos, but when we condemn our nation’s own attacks on its citizens like this we ignore the fact that American fascism is better likened to American imperialism, just within its own borders. The “This is not us, but someone else” rhetoric ignores history, which is also maybe acknowledging history in the most American way.

Such a contradiction exists because history is not just a transcription of what’s happened, “history is also a memory — a matter of whose voices are heard, whose personal experiences are recorded, which communities’ experiences are officially chosen to represent a neighborhood, a city, a state, the country,” as Richard Brody put it in his review of Da 5 Bloods. The film and the history of the people it involves were painful, powerful and educational. Its script and characters were fictional, but its truth lies in a collage of oppression, as Spike Lee overlays military violence in Vietnam with police and state violence in America against Black people. The film depicted the Vietnam war, in certain parts, and Blackness in America in others and the wicked treatment of oppressed people all over the world by the powerful elite, and the lies they spread about it, in full.

In war and civil unrest, white nationalism causes turmoil and then names itself the sole alleviator of the mess it has created, the effects of which are felt for generations after America says each battle is over. Struggles of the oppressed stay felt like aftershocks because even when troops are said to be withdrawn, or civil rights conceded, the repercussions of being an enemy to America, both inside and outside its borders, is endless.

The ongoing problem of police violence here isn’t unlike our military violence elsewhere; it never has been, and framing the footage of this chapter of American life as a descent into chaos or a fall from grace is only proof of how we’ve perverted our memories. The idea of historical unbiasedness has been so poisoned with the acid of Americanism that it now entails the immense manipulation of histories and current events until both sides of a story appear to be in equal standing. For the American government’s perspective of our nation’s history to slip into news cycles and textbooks and everyday conversations as anything less than atrocious, nauseating, crimes against humanity, our memory must lack historicity; so collectively, we repress the evils of our nation and leave them out of headlines, typical war dramas and the average classroom. Western propaganda is so good that it doesn’t exist.

Hiding our past is what conjures up denial about what we’re seeing now, so it’s not enough to just open our eyes. We have to confront Americanism wherever it writes over the voices of the oppressed, which is why those three words from my notes continue to ring in my ears while I’m lapping up the last few weeks of a dreadfully long summer full of sickness, uproar and an evolving online political consciousness. I’m also preparing for the fall semester as a Government major at an institution where the syllabi of many courses do not mirror the contents of my sacred notebook from Black Radicalism in the U.S. And though I hope that the thirst for justice that has taken over city streets and Cornell students’ Instagram stories will help us tackle the American-centric, heroizing, ahistorical perspectives in our very political classrooms, there’s an equal worry that amnesiac habits will kick in and create a campus without an understanding of this summer’s history, or the blank space of histories have been erased from our memory.

Alecia Wilk is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this summer.