Revisionist History: The Burden of Silence-Grant Glessing

The traditional American’s view on the daily experience of the average African-American needs to be re-interpreted. The motivations and decisions of Americans in the past and present have had profound effects on past and current generations of blacks. Since the 1619 landing of enslaved Africans on American soil blacks have been forced and expected to fit into social norms that don’t allow for their freedom. “Black Silence” signifies the inability of blacks to be themselves without harsh criticism from white America. The ability to have the freedom, that was defined in the Constitution, to act or think in a certain way was nonexistent. The actions of lynching, murder, and limited employment and education opportunities lead to blacks left with no options. Throughout history, Blacks have put their lives at risk anytime they stepped outside their boundaries trying to protest for basic human rights. This lead to generations of blacks that were not able to form a self-defined racial identity. The depths of black silence is an underrepresented part of what it is like to be black in America. The effects of this burden have been prevalent and visible from the 17th to the 21st century. The enforcement of this silence remains a part of black marginalization in today’s society. Tied to this silencing is the assertion that blacks individually were responsible for failures and not the corrupt system at the root of the problem. As intended, the “blame” caused and causes a sense of shame among blacks which led to centuries of silence. Black silence and its impact are seen in international, domestic, and individual contexts. A panel hosted by the San Diego Public Library and the University of San Diego featured moderator V Dozier, Channon Miller, Ph.D., and Cory Gooding Ph.D. discussed how silence has come up in their lives. The discussion explored the meaning of silence, which suppressed justice to maintain inequality for generations. The history of black silence and its effects can be seen when specifically looking into black households, as well as the lives of teenagers, athletes, and women throughout African-American history.

The expectation of silence became demanded of blacks thru brutal force and sly/racist comments that were allowed in an oppressive social/justice system. This leads black households to adapt by instilling their kids with behaviors that would be considered acceptable. For example, the University of San Diego librarian V Dozier, at a discussion called “The Depths of Black Silence,” talked about how her parents view her natural hairstyle. Dozier talked about how when she stopped straightening her hair her parents showed concern about her appearance. Her parents believed that her natural hair would damage her career. It is small things like this that show how instilled silence is in the black community. Journalist Michelle Norris wrote a book called The Grace of Silence filled with stories of the power of silence. In a shocking excerpt, Norris talks about an experience at the airport with her father who was dying from cancer. The deadly disease impaired her father’s ability to speak without sputtering. As the pair were waiting to board, sitting across from them were two middle-aged white women. The woman judged her father by assuming he was drunk and said: “Goodness sakes, it’s not even noon yet!”. If her father was a white man, one can guess that they would have not been so quick to judge his behavior as immoral. Norris then boarded her father which was the last time she saw him alive and smiled when she walked past the white women. This is the deepest depth of black silence that isn’t seen on the surface. Norris says this reaction was because of how she was raised. Her father always said to raise beyond anger and offer appeasement instead. Norris like countless other blacks were raised “by a model minority to be a model minority, and to achieve that status, certain impulse has to be suppressed” (Norris). This fight to destroy the minority stereotypes is something that is rarely brought up in racial discussions. The oppression that is faced daily is more common than portrayed. Incidents like these happen in households and airports all across America while most never know about the extent of oppression.

Black Silence is not limited to daily and seemingly mundane occasions, but it extends to physical violence as well. Emmitt Till was a black teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Emmitt’s body was so mutilated that his face was almost unrecognizable. His mother decided to have an open casket to show the horrors of lynching. This rallied black support for the civil rights movement and became national news. At first, many newspapers called for justice for Till but when seeing that the outrage was so powerful they started to defend Missippians. This period many whites tried to demonize black anger in a way that was harmful to society. Instead of attacking the killers and institutional racism (the killers were acquitted), they decided to attack the outrage. This moment can describe how black silence comes about. It epitomizes the silencing of African Americans and the use of silence to withhold justice and maintain the status quo. The second blacks expressed emotion over a slain teenager that died because of his skin color they were portrayed as the “bad guys.” A present-day national figure that defines the expectation of black silence is Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is an NFL professional football player that sat and ultimately began to kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner, also referred to as the National Anthem. He said it was because “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people…there are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder” (Loggins). He protested because he wanted the American flag to represent what it was intended to represent. The flag of the free where all men are created equal. This created a media frenzy where the country was divided across racial lines on if Kaepernick was correct in using the right form of protest. Within a year he was “blackballed” by NFL teams and does not currently have a job within football. This reaction by the media and fans perfectly shows how quickly any chance of showing justified emotion gets silenced. In 2020 not a single NFL player knees for the anthem in a league that is 70 percent black. This was an order from the league and its owners to stop peaceful silent protests. This sets a precedent moving forward that any form of activism that would directly address racial inequality and offend some Americans, as a result, will not be tolerated.

The stereotypes that black women have to fight brings shame only they had to endure. The idea of “welfare queen” that was popularized by Ronald Reagan, the United States President in the 1980s, was directed toward single, black mothers. Reagan created a fictitious image of an “irresponsible, sexually promiscuous black woman who lived extravagantly on taxpayers dime” (White,578). This gender and the racial image were a stereotype and not rooted in reality as the majority of welfare fraud were males and the majority of those using welfare were white. After 1970 black women were the face of poverty in America. This pushed a stereotype that shamed black mothers and was backed up by researchers. A 1999 study the “Welfare Queen” by Franklin Gilliam showed white people’s attitudes to images of African-American women on welfare. Gilliam showed viewers two videos on welfare reform that were the same expect the skin color of the women in the video. The results showed that people were “extremely accurate in their recall of the race and gender of the black female welfare recipient in comparison to those who saw the story with the white female welfare recipient”(Gilliam). This experiment yields important insight into the narrative the media and politicians pushed. This outcome confirmed that this unbalanced narrative of gender and race had become a standard cultural bias. This standard hurts the majority of black women that have never seen a welfare check in their life and shames those who need them due to racialized economic inequality into silence and not receiving the help they need and deserve. The history of America has been written as seen by the traditional view for a traditional mindset. The full story of America is only truly seen when looking at personal stories and the history of African-Americans. As former President Barack Obama said “learning to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make it happen”(White House).

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