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New book puts blacks' struggle in the proper light


WASHINGTON -- Granted, it is not the sexiest subject in the world, not the kind of thing that gets people het up enough to write letters to the editor. Yet there are few things more vitally important to understanding the world and our role in it.

I'm talking about history and the teaching thereof. And if you keep rolling your eyes, your face is going to freeze like that.

Not that I'm surprised. We are a historical people, a nation of short memories and cherished myths. For us, history doesn't matter -- right up until it does.

Right up until someone says the Holocaust didn't happen. Or that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was an American hero. Or that the Civil War was fought over "state's rights." At which point you -- by which I mean I -- start to wonder what children are being taught about the nation they will someday inherit.

For my money, not nearly enough.

We don't do a very good job of teaching history in this country. And no history is more ineptly taught than African-American history. It has usually been my experience that that history is either ignored or glossed over lightly with an emphasis on the achievements of a few inventors and scholars. There is little evocation of the context that made the achievements more noteworthy, the litany of lynchings and beatings, chains and cheatings, toughness and triumph that define African America's story. It's as if those things are regarded as too difficult for tender ears to hear.

So you can understand why I am pleased with Diane McWhorter's new book.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Carry Me Home, a memoir of growing up a white girl in Birmingham during the 1963 civil rights campaign there. Now she is back with another book about Birmingham -- along with Montgomery, Jackson, Albany and the other battlefronts of the civil rights revolution. What makes A Dream of Freedom noteworthy, however, is not that it's a history of that era but that it's a history for kids -- middle-schoolers and up.

The idea, she says, was to lift the fuzzy gauze of Hallmark card sentiment that has descended on the events of those dangerous years. For kids born a quarter-century after the Voting Rights Act was passed, segregation is about as believable as SpongeBob SquarePants and the Rev. Martin Luther King is a figure on a newsreel trapped in an endless loop of "I Have A Dream." Ms. McWhorter's book -- a quick read with lots of pictures and spare, unsentimental prose -- is an attempt to help young readers understand what those years were like.

"We now look back on it as a form of social insanity," she says, "but it felt normal at the time. It felt normal to whites and to most blacks. The African-Americans who fought to overthrow this were a tiny minority and really revolutionary, and didn't get the support of the general black public until it was pretty clear they were going to win."

Social insanity. It is an apt term, capturing as it does the prevailing sense that it was perfectly normal to say that some citizens were better than others. In other words, if everybody's wrong, nobody's wrong, a communal mindset that allowed white people to commit a social evil, yet still regard themselves as decent.

Thirty years later, most of us wonder how they could have ever been so deluded.

So Ms. McWhorter's book is valuable for more than just the obvious reason. Yes, it's good that it will present young people with a history they ought to know. But it's also good that it will tacitly encourage them to look beyond the blinders of present day.

If they begin to understand how inequities could have felt normal 40 years ago, maybe they'll question the inequities that feel normal today.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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