Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories That Give Us Meaning by Richard Hughes – My Five Lessons and Takeaways

Myths America Lives ByIn his 1895 book, Why Is the Negro Lynched?, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked how the nation could solve its racial dilemma.
It cannot be solved by keeping the Negro poor, degraded, ignorant and half-starved…. It cannot be solved by keeping back the wages of the labourer by fraud…. It cannot be done by ballot-box stuffing, by falsifying election returns, or by confusing the Negro voter by cunning devices. It cannot be done by repealing all federal laws enacted to secure honest elections.
How, then, could it be done? Let the white people of the North and South conquer their prejudices.
Let them give up the idea that they can be free while making the Negro a slave.
“Let the nation try justice and the problem will be solved.”
• Included in the book by Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By

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There are some very good books that I did not like reading.  Not because they are not well-written.  Not because they are wrong.  But because they make me feel…sad; embarrassed for our country; ashamed.

Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories That Give Us Meaning by historian Richard T. Hughes is one such book.

This volume is the second edition of this book.  The first edition did not acknowledge the centrality of the myth of white supremacy.  After conversations with some African American leaders, Mr. Hughes updated his argument for this second edition.

I presented my synopsis of this book last Thursday in Dallas at the June Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare.  I do strongly recommend that you read this.  It is a little heavy lifting – some serious historical work. But, it is worth it.

The foreward to the first edition was written by Robert N. Bellah.  And the foreword to the second edition was written by Molefi Kete Asante.  Both of these forewords add greatly to the value of his book.

In my synopsis, I asked What is the point?— The myth of white supremacy permeates all of American culture and society, yesterday, today, and…

And I asked, Why is this book worth our time?
#1 – We ignore, deny, refuse to be honest about, our history. This book is a pretty big dose of reality.
#2 – For many (most; practically all) white people, we do not know the African-American voices.  This book points us to those voices, revealing their needed messages.
#3 – This book is a sweeping historical treatment of some critical issues. It is founded on solid research. In other words, it is very much worth paying attention to.

Here are a few Quotes and Excerpts from the book – from the “best of” Randy’s highlighted passages:

“Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths.” “And what might that be?” I inquired. “The Myth of White Supremacy.” …And while I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. It simply never registered on my radar screen. …James Noel was right—that the Myth of White Supremacy is the primal myth in American life and history, and that to tell this story in any other way would be to speak untruth.
We are democratic. We believe in equality. We believe in opportunity. This is the land of all those things. So therefore, there is a tendency to forget about aspects of our history which don’t fit that pattern.”
When we speak in this book of white supremacy, we are not speaking of white nationalist groups that proclaim white supremacy from the rooftops. We are speaking, instead, of ourselves and of the common culture in which we live—a culture suffused with the assumption that, in most ways, whites are superior to blacks.
Ibram X. Kendi explains that the Myth of White Supremacy has been evolving for roughly 600 years and, for all that time, has served a single purpose—to justify and legitimate the enslavement, brutalization, oppression, torture, and marginalization of African men, women, and children.
Woodrow Wilson repeated in his five-volume History of the American People the long-standing myth of the happy slave.
What we witness in all these episodes is a common pattern in American life. Every time blacks have made notable gains, White rage recurs in American history. …For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.
The “trigger,” she argues, “is always black advancement.” …it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.” …“White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.”
…systemic racism is far from eradicated, prejudice against blacks still runs deep in American life, and whites in this country have resisted, and often successfully resisted, every major gain that blacks have made over the course of American history.
What should we make of the fact that most blacks perceive the Myth of White Supremacy with startling clarity and view it as pervasive in American life, while most white Americans imagine that white supremacy is confined to the radical fringes of American culture?
Nations, like all other human institutions, typically seek to preserve their wealth and power and share that power and resources with others only under duress.
Michelle Alexander, has described the backlash against the Freedom Movement of the 1960s as “the new Jim Crow”—an effort to incarcerate black people through a massive “war on drugs,” launched by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1982.  …the most important phrase in Alexander’s last question is this: “denied access to the mainstream economy.” The new Jim Crow, coupled with the vast and privatized prison-industrial complex, has served—and continues to serve—to lock young blacks out of America’s capitalist system. Michelle Alexander confessed that she came quite reluctantly to the conclusions she presented in her book, The New Jim Crow. “Ten years ago,” she writes, “I would have argued strenuously against the central claim made here—namely, that something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States.”

Here are the five myths covered in the first edition of this book (also included in the second edition):

  • The Myth of the Chosen Nation—the notion that God Almighty chose the United States for a special mission in the world
  • The Myth of Nature’s Nation—the conviction that American ideals and institutions are rooted in the natural order, that is, in God’s own intentions first revealed at the dawn of creation
  • The Myth of the Millennial Nation—the notion that the United States, building on that natural order, will usher in a final golden age for all humankind
  • The Myth of the Christian Nation—the claim that America is a Christian nation, consistently guided by Christian values
  • And the Myth of the Innocent Nation—the conviction that, while other nations may have blood on their hands, the nobility of the American cause always redeems the nation and renders it innocent.
  • And here is the overarching myth – the Myth of White Supremacy — The fundamental argument of this book, therefore, is twofold—first, that the Myth of White Supremacy is the primal American myth that informs all the others and, second, that one of the chief functions of the other five myths is to protect and obscure the Myth of White Supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all.

For those who do not know our history as they should (including…me), this is instructive, and disturbing. Our leaders weren’t all that “pure”

  • Many of the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, owned slaves, and Jefferson—the man who penned the Declaration’s immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—also believed that blacks were “inferior to… whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
  • Lincoln, and many, many other “heroes” of equality, believed in white supremacy.Lincoln himself, however, contributed to that hopelessness …I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people;… There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
  • Andrew Johnson—wrote to Missouri Governor Thomas C. Fletcher that “this is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” 
  • …“that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Like the promise of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson regarded the inferiority of black people as a self-evident truth, also grounded in nature. “It is not their condition, then, but nature, which has produced the distinction,” he wrote.

Here are my five lessons and takeaways from the book:

#1 – Let’s start here.  A white person cannot know what is like to be black in America.
#2 – No; let’s start here.  The mistreatment of black people in this country, based on the view of black people that flows from the myth of white supremacy, has been horrific – systemically – from then to now.
#3 – One thing all could do would be to read more of the African-American voices.  Read their words; in their books. — (a thought about The Case for Reparationsby Ta-Nehisi Coates).
#4 – To use a very religious word, repentance might be a good thing…
#5 – We really do need to address the policy decisions that perpetuate the myth of white supremacy. Policy can be racist.

It seems to me that white people in America could benefit from a better and more honest reading of, and learning from, our history.  The myth of white supremacy is a very real part of that history – maybe “the” part that matters.  This book provides a very good starting place.

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