Our past is too rich to abbreviate
Embracing a more complete history of America would help Americans move past some of our current problems.
Seattle Times staff columnist
If we’d all grown up with better history lessons, no one would have expected Macklemore to apologize for winning a rap award, Michael Sam’s father might not have been so hostile to his son declaring himself to be gay, and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s new book about who succeeds in America and why wouldn’t get much attention.
The stories involving Macklemore, Sam and Chua have little to do with one another except that they are products of ideas we’ve built on an incomplete portrayal of America.
I’ll start with Chua’s book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” Chua made a big splash three years ago with another book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.”
In the new book, she and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, write that in America, Chinese, Jews, Mormons, Nigerians and a few other groups are super successful because of three shared characteristics, a belief in their group’s superiority, insecurity about their place in this society, and grit.
They include caveats, acknowledging that opportunity hasn’t been equal for every group, then return to their theme, which is far from new. It’s in keeping with the myth of America, that anyone with a sense destiny and who work hard, can be successful, which in their calculation means making lots of money. A review in The Washington Post gives the book an F.
I was reading it because the authors were speaking in Seattle on Wednesday, but it got me thinking about history in the context of Black History Month, which is partly born out of the need for black Americans to see ourselves in the nation’s history as participants in the building of America.
Chua is right that individuals who feel good about the people they descend from are more likely to set their own sights high. Black children who are immersed in a version of history that celebrates the roles of black people usually do better in school than ones who get the usual story of white guys, with pauses to mention slavery and Martin Luther King Jr.
The dominant storyline also affects how groups view each other. My ninth-grade football coach was also my English teacher, and he’d shake his head and say he didn’t know what to make of me. “You can write, but you can’t play football.” That was not what he expected (I, too, thought I should be good at running and catching). Needless to say, we read no black writers in that class, or Native American or Latino ones. It’s better today, but often not by much.
What are the discussions in school like? Are students, after reading a white, male author asked to discuss language, ideas, composition, and after reading a black author asked to write an essay on race alone? How are writers who are women taught? Those decisions are part of how the story of us is taught.
Michael Sam can play football. He’s also gay; black and gay. If we had a more complete history we’d understand the two attributes are not strangers to each other. There have been many significant figures in our national history who have been both black and gay and knowing about them surely would make for different politics around issues that involve both.
You might be able to name a few notables, the writer James Baldwin, the activist Bayard Rustin, or Sheryl Swoopes, the WNBA legend, but far too many were closeted.
The late Barbara Jordan, politician and mighty orator, lived with her partner for decades, but never openly declared herself. It was obvious that she was black and a woman, which made her success in Texas politics and on the national stage remarkable and a challenge.
We ought to bring the full story of people like her into the history young Americans learn. It would give both black people and white gays and lesbians a different set of lenses through which to view themselves and each other to their mutual benefit. Everything is more complex than a simple history makes it seem.
Macklemore knows some history. The Seattle rapper won four Grammy Awards this year in a genre that originated with black artists, but that over the past year has been dominated by white rappers. There is a long history of black artists creating music only to see white performers take it to the bank. With that as background, Macklemore apologized to a black rapper who he felt had been robbed of recognition.
I don’t know enough about the rap world to judge whether an apology was necessary, but I was glad Macklemore took the history to heart, because that’s part of moving forward. What I’d like is a no-apology future. Part of getting there is portraying our country accurately (in school, media, entertainment), which includes being inclusive.
That kind of story would allow us to accept that one of the keys to American success, no matter what endeavor we’re talking about, has been the mixing that happens in a diverse society. It’s that mixing that generates new ideas that ultimately belong to all of us.
In such a country we could all be confident the best artist would win, regardless of race.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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