The history I've learned during the Covid-19 lockdown

I came to the U.S. in 1962, a month after my fourteenth birthday, and spent my first school year in America at the Joan of Arc Junior High School, a hulking, Soviet-looking public school on the upper West Side of New York. My first year was taken up with learning English, navigating the maelstrom of races, languages and ethnic groups at my school, and on weekends, going for long walks to take in the mind-boggling wonders of New York, my new home. 

The school day began and ended in my homeroom, which I shared with Haitians, Central Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, West Indians, Puerto Ricans and other nationalities. Plus just one white classmate, the memorably good-looking, friendly, and appropriately named Jimmy White. I don’t know why he was placed in our homeroom. 
Our teacher, Miss Virginia Mazzaro, middle-aged and always elegantly coiffed, led this multicultural cacophony with the assuredness of a veteran conductor. She could speak only Italian and English, but somehow stretched her limited linguistic skills to communicate with the 30-odd members of her multilingual ensemble. 
I remember her fondly as one of the best, and most caring, teachers I ever had; a reassuring hand during this frightening, yet exciting, period in my life. I once told her that my dad used to play classical music at home, and she finagled tickets for me and a couple of other students to a Metropolitan Opera performance, still at its old home, and one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. The opera was Claude Debussy’s  “Pelléas et Mélisande,” which I remember mostly for being interminably boring. Bernstein, though, was a delightful showman.

After Joan of Arc, I bounced through three more foster homes and two more schools, before graduating, in 1966, from St. Agnes High School, a lily-white Catholic school in the Long Island suburb of Rockville Centre, a year after my parents had arrived from Cuba.
My introduction to American history was informal and real-time, as current events pelted me via  television and newspapers. I don’t recall taking an American history class as such. But I lived through the October Missile Crisis and the Cold War; the protests for racial equality, mostly in the South; the Vietnam War and attendant student protests; the raucous and mind-altered hippie years; Nixon’s resignation, and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.  
The past five months, though, during which the U.S. has been engulfed by the triple crisis of a pandemic, racial turmoil and economic downturn—and which my husband Stew and our five dogs and three cats have experienced while under virtual house arrest at the ranch—I’ve picked up crucial bits of American history that had eluded me.  Among them:
1. Black people were massacred in Tulsa in 1921. Between 26 and 200 of them—there has never been an exact death toll—at the hands of police and racist white vigilantes who had been “deputized” to enforce the law as they saw fit.  A prosperous 36-block neighborhood, known as the “Black Wall Street,” was flattened as if by an indiscriminate air raid. The word “pogrom” is generally used to describe Nazi massacres of Jews in Europe, but it could be fairly applied to what happened in Tulsa. 
I’d never heard of the Tulsa Massacre, and to my astonishment, none of my American friends were even aware either such an act of savagery had taken place in our country. Indeed, until recently, the massacre wasn’t even part of the Oklahoma public school curriculum. 
June 1, 2021 will be the centenary of the massacre. Mark your calendars and pause for a minute of prayer for the victims. 
2. Juneteenth. “Had never heard of it,” confessed Stew, one of the smartest guys I know, who was class valedictorian of the 1964 graduating class of 415 students at Dubuque High School. Then again, he doesn’t recall any Black classmates. I doubt many white Americans, outside of Texas, had heard of Juneteenth either.
A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” it’s the actual date when African-American slaves in Texas were freed. I had grown up thinking that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln had freed all slaves, and that was that. In fact, slaves in Texas were not freed for another two and a half years.
It isn’t clear whether the news didn’t travel because the messenger was murdered, or Texas plantation owners simply ignored the presidential proclamation in order to hang on to their slaves. At any rate, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that a Union general with a detachment of soldiers arrived in Texas and informed the locals that “all slaves are free.” You might want to mark that date on your calendar too. 

3. The American Civil War lives on. That fratricidal conflict technically ended April 9, 1865, but the most odious aspect of the Confederate regime—repression of African-Americans—survived de facto, for another hundred years or more, as Jim Crow laws, and symbolically, in the form of monuments memorializing Confederate “heroes”—surely a daily affront to African Americans in the South. 
According to Article Three of the U.S. Constitution, such supposed heroes were, in fact, traitors who took up arms against the United States to defend the ancien régime of slavery and racial segregation. 
Confederate “heroes” on the move. 
Until a few months ago, such offensive public reminders of treason remained untouched and accepted as part of the urban scenery throughout the South. Imagine a Quisling Boulevard in Oslo or a Benedict Arnold High School in Boston. 
At the behest of protesters, state governments are now removing most such monuments, not a second too soon.
4. Bloody Sunday, 1965. I knew about the historic Selma to Montgomery march, during which civil rights activists were assaulted and beaten by local police, but only in rough outlines, perhaps because I was 17 at the time, and civil rights landmarks were not part of the curriculum at my high school.
The death of John Lewis, however, and watching Ava DuVernay’s memorable movie “Selma” again, was a grim reminder of the brutality of the event, and the courage of the demonstrators. The opening scenes of the movie showed how Blacks, who technically had the right to vote, were effectively disenfranchised throughout most of the South. Later, demonstrators were beaten with clubs, some wrapped with barbed wire. 
The site of horror and courage.
The funeral service for John Lewis on July 30, and the moving eulogies by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, reintroduced me to that selfless, virtuous and courageous man, in my mind the closest thing to a contemporary saint. 
As three former presidents converged in Atlanta to honor Lewis, it showed too that bipartisan decency lives on in America, albeit presently under siege by the current occupant of the White House.
As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote on July 31, “In a world seemingly gone mad, Thursday’s funeral for Rep. John Lewis offered a refute of sanity and presented a confluence of humankind’s best qualities—honor, dignity, humility and grace.” 
By the way, the bridge where Lewis and his protesters were beaten, retains the name Edmund Pettus, a former Confederate brigadier general, U.S. Senator and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. There is a move to rename the bridge in honor of Lewis. May it be so, and soon. 
5. Police brutality lives on, and on. After living in Chicago for more than 30 years, I should have been fully aware of the reality of police brutality, there and in other parts of the country. 
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago was lynched and savagely beaten in Mississippi in 1955. When the body was returned to Chicago, his mother insisted on an open-casket wake so the world could see what had been done to her beautiful boy. A photo of the boy’s mutilated body appeared in a local magazine, and stirred the soul of decent human beings in the U.S. and around the world, if only for a while.

Till was a beautiful boy.

Then came the George Floyd murder by a Minneapolis policeman, in broad daylight, amid numerous witnesses, and captured on video. To see that corpulent policeman resting his knee on Floyd’s neck, looking straight ahead, expressionless, as if he were posing, became a new image of police brutality. 
National outrage, protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted—nationally and internationally. May the new awareness of the continuing reality of police brutality, and the commitment to do something about it, go on to bring about reforms, and not fade from public consciousness.
6. The “better angels” of America will prevail. For all the holes in my formal knowledge of American history, during my nearly sixty years in the U.S. I’ve come to firmly believe in the resilience of the country and its democratic institutions. 
I’ve witnessed national crises that, at the time, commentators deemed apocalyptic, foretelling the final failure of the promising but ultimately flawed American experiment. The Vietnam War, various economic crises, the forced resignation of a president, race riots, and seemingly intractable issues of economic and racial inequality. And now, the toxic political climate in the country.
Historian Jon Meacham, in his 2018 best seller “The Soul of America,” proposed that “to understand the present moment in American politics and life [we need to look back] at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.”  Meacham takes the reader through a number of national catastrophes, including a civil war that remains the bloodiest conflict in American history, and how the country survived stronger and perhaps wiser. 
That resilience and national optimism is not something I learned from history books but something I’ve come to believe as I’ve become part of this great nation. I’m convinced that will get us through the current travails, daunting as they might seem now.\

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s