Speaker urges a revisiting of America’s origin story

October 11, 2017

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who teaches History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, stimulated earnest debate among a diverse audience on the Saint Michael’s College campus last Thursday over whose history has been displayed in this country in recent years.

In emphasizing the alternate “stories” or perspectives of American history, Muhammad’s captivating presentation probed issues loaded with racial, political, and social tensions.

The speaker began his presentation by stating: “We are living in a moment of intense conversation about racism, not race.” He made the distinction that race is a group of people who share a similar culture, history, and language, among other things. He then defined racism as the action of dividing ethnic groups by defining differences between them.

“Racism is the child of race,” he said.

Muhammad’s main argument is that America’s origin story has been told from the perspective of white men. As he puts it, in the fight for the meaning of America, “the “North won the battle but the South won the war.”

While at first hearing this sounds incorrect considering it was the North that won the American Civil War, Muhammad suggested that the “battle” is the Civil War and the “war” is over “the meaning of America” – that is, the origin story of this country. After the Civil War, African-American slaves were given freedom from slavery but they were not given democracy (citizenship, voting rights and other basic human rights) because they were seen as somehow less human than white Americans. This “southern” ideology resonated throughout the country and eventually became deeply rooted in American values and its origin story, said Muhammed — which is why racism is so prevalent and prominent in the national conversation today.

Though it is unfortunate that this ideology of racism has become so deeply rooted in American culture, he said, we have ways to at least begin ridding the country of such toxic ideas. One way he proposed is to alter “American values” in order to change the American origin story to include the perspective of African-Americans and other marginalized groups.

He said such an approach is advanced by actions like removing statues of Confederate soldiers and references to the Confederate flag in order to de-emphasize the regrettable aspects of white American history, while highlighting the positive aspects of African-American history. When we alter our American values and include all people in our origin story, he said, we are able to achieve inclusion and unity among the American people.

But unfortunately, America does not seem ready to alter our origin story at the moment, he said, and until that time comes, we must continue to teach the history and values that will encourage all members of society to work toward unity and justice in this country.

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