John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


History Doesn’t Move in a Straight Line

Posted on September 22, 2016
By Fuzheado - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Fuzheado - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

History doesn’t move in a straight line.

And for that reason, I hope they have some extra space at the African-American History Museum, slated to open up this weekend.  Because that history is still being written.

Hegel had a theory about the movement of history.  Action and counter-action buffeted humanity, thesis and anti-thesis, all leading to greater progress, towards a better world.

Except that Hegel’s dialectic became Marx’s dialectic, and that didn’t work out so well.

Is our history already written?  Are we moving to a better world or are we due for a tremendous set-back?  Are we moving forward or is winter coming?

I haven’t stepped foot in the African-American History Museum, but I have driven past it.

I wanted to drive past it this evening, but I couldn’t because traffic was terrible.  And it was terrible because our nation’s first African American President was visiting it a day before it was slated to officially open.

Barack Obama is one of those rare African-Americans whose father was actually African.  And while Mr. Obama’s children, by dint of their mother, have the blood of slaves running in their veins, he does not.

So his perspective on the Museum is especially poignant.   He’s an outsider looking in.

He is our nation’s first black President but his family line was not directly impacted by the slave experience.

Slavery, the Peculiar Institution, as the historian Kenneth Stampp called it in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, is America’s original sin.

It was Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Wright, who claimed that the chickens will come home to roost, and when it comes to slavery, he was right.  America continually reaps what it once sowed.

Slavery has left a mark on our society, and I look forward to making a journey to learn the history once again when I get a chance to visit the Museum in November.  (Apparently, that’s the first time tickets are available to most of us who didn’t have the smarts to pre-order).

But you don’t need to go to a Museum to see slavery’s impact on our society today.

Some will say that slavery happened a long time ago and people should just get over it.  But don’t be naïve.  It was Faulkner who said, “the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

You only need to see the riots in Charlotte or take in the riots in Baltimore or remember the riots in Ferguson to know that the past in not dead.

You only need to see the statistics from states like Mississippi or Alabama, which are mired at the bottom of the economic rankings of all the States.   You can’t discriminate against a whole class of people when it comes to nutrition and education and jobs and health care for generations and then expect them to suddenly be able to compete with the rest of the world.

You can’t spend generations breaking up their families and then expect them to suddenly live in peace and prosperity.  You can’t whip the slaves and not have their descendants pick up some bad habits about child rearing.

Slavery leaves a mark and it continues to leave a mark in many communities that most struggle with drugs, family breakdown, crime, and misery.

But this is not the sum of the black experience.

Indeed, I hope to see in the African American History Museum the thousands of success stories of people who struggled against racism but won in life.   About those black Americans who became heroes to all Americans.  About guys like Jackie Robinson and John Lewis, like Miles Davis and Michael Jordan, like Martin Luther King and Bob Gibson, like Jessie Owens and Chris Rock.  And don’t forget about the women.  For every Rosa Parks, there was a Billie Holiday, for every Althea Gibson there was an Oprah Winfrey.

You can see the progress in places like Prince George’s County, the largest county of middle class African American in the country.   But there hasn’t been enough progress.  Not by a long shot.

And the fact is it is not a zero-sum game.   A rising tide lifts all boats.  And those who are not black have much to gain when black unemployment goes down, when black families stay together, when black communities are safer and when black students do every bit as well as everybody else.

We are all in this together, baby.

Colin Kaepernick is taking a stand for racial progress by taking a knee during the national anthem.  I would rather him get on his knees than sit on his butt.  Because what this country needs is more prayers, and people pray best on their knees.

We face enormous challenges in this country and racial strife continues to rank high among them.

History doesn’t move in a straight line.

Many believed that after the election of Barack Obama, all of this talk of racism and racial hatred would be a thing of the past.

But nothing causes more disappointment than the collapse of high expectations.

Mr. Obama is but one man and his election -- while symbolically important – wasn’t going to change what is in the hearts of more than 300 million people.

We all have our own fears, our own prejudices, our experiences, our own biases and our own relationships.

Some of us have friends from all races, but most of us don’t.  And the fact is that we like to live in our comfort zones.

One public university decided to open up a black-only dorm at the request of their African-American students.  Ain’t that something?  They want their safe spaces, away from the kids who don’t understand their experiences.

We have come a long way from when James Meredith first integrated the University of Mississippi.   Old Miss is still called the “Running Rebels” but I would venture to say that most of the players on its football team are the descendants of some of those slaves that are being remembered at the African-American History Museum this weekend.

That’s progress but it is also practicality on the part of Old Miss.  They want to win, don’t they?

And I guess that’s the lesson we should all learn.

We all win when we play together, when we know one another, when we look at each other not through the prism of race but rather through the prism of our common humanity.

We are not there yet.  History doesn’t move in a straight line.

I hope to learn more about it when I get a chance to visit the African-American History Museum.  Probably sometime in November.

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