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Why This White Guy Observes Black History Month

By January 29, 2013 No Comments

by Paul Janssen

This white guy observes Black History Month because there is no way that I would be living the life I live today without the mostly unwilling contributions of African Americans. I am who I am because they did what they did.

That might sound odd coming from a fellow who grew up in Iowa, which during my youth was one of the whitest states in the nation. I didn’t meet an African American until I was in college, and then I only knew one or two by name.

I won’t trouble you with my community’s routine racial slurs, some of which were so deeply woven into our language that we didn’t even know they were offensive. I was raised in a white cocoon. I’m not defending it or insulting it. That’s just what it was.

Why was—and is—Iowa so lily-white (more than ninety percent)? Even though it sacrificed a higher percentage of its male population than any other state to the Union cause in the Civil War, Iowa has hardly been a melting pot. Instead, along with other northern states, it enacted “black codes” to discourage African Americans from moving there (even as it enthusiastically embraced my ancestors—hard-working, land-tilling Dutch and German Calvinists). The “Act to Regulate Blacks and Mulattoes” prevented African Americans from voting, from serving in the military, and from testifying in court against white people. African American children were not allowed to attend school. African American dead often had to be buried in black-only cemeteries. Particularly meaningful to me (the husband of a beautiful African American woman), interracial marriage, also known by the nasty-sounding term miscegenation, was outlawed.

I learned about none of this, except the sacrifice of our boys to the Union cause, during Iowa history courses in junior high and high school. I doubt I would ever have come across Iowa’s ambiguous race-relations history unless I’d done a good deal of research for a home-study African American history course I taught to my son.

I am who I am—a person who has to force himself to think about the importance of race to those who have been discriminated against—because African Americans were not welcome in Iowa. Yet I also am who I am—a prosperous and secure middle-class American—because of what African Americans were made to sacrifice for the building of this nation.


My opaqueness about race manifested itself most clearly in a seminary classroom in which the professor required the racially mixed class to read James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (Orbis, 1969). I still remember my initial reaction: How could there be such a thing as a “black” theology? There was no such thing as “white” theology. Theology, after all, was about God, and God was neither black nor white nor any other human color (or gender, for that matter). God was God. I commiserated with fellow white classmates: we just wanted to get through this part of the class and move on to “real” theology (which happened to be written by people of northern European ancestry, like me). When Sharon, one of the African American women in the class, got on a tear, we were polite; we did our best not to roll our eyes visibly and even tried to look sympathetic. Yet all along we were convinced that Cone had created God in his own image, rather than the other way around.

Then came the moment that every professor dreams of. One day we white students had had just about enough, and someone figured out how to frame a question that had just enough edge on it to be real but not so real that the classroom would explode. Unaware of our arrogance, we asked, “Doesn’t Cone just speak for a rather small, highly educated, politically liberal segment of the black population?” We thought we’d found his weakness.

Our professor didn’t answer. He stood silently. Then Marie spoke up. Marie was the stereotype of a middle-class African American grandmother. She was always well-dressed in a smart ensemble. She straightened and curled her salt-andpepper, shoulder-length hair into a gentle flip. Her eyeglasses looked like they’d come from a ’60s style catalog.

“Well, let me tell you,” Marie said, without a hint of anger. “I might have agreed with you when I started reading the book. But the more I read it, the more my memories kept speaking to me—the memory of my mother coming home exhausted with her service uniform on only to start a full day’s work of taking care of my brothers and sisters and me.

“I remember being hustled into the dark closet under the stairway of my mother and daddy’s home one night. We’d heard a hard knock on the door at a time of night when nobody comes to visit with good news to share. My grandmother stood guard at the door and peeked out, while we crouched under the low stairs; she held a shotgun in her hand and was ready to defend us to the death. We didn’t even know what we were afraid of.

“And I rode trains down South to see my family, and I drank from ‘colored’ fountains and went to the toilet in holes in the ground. I can’t forget the way the real estate broker drove us completely around those nice parts of town where ‘we wouldn’t want to live anyway.’ No, Professor Cone isn’t just talking about a few black folk. He’s talking about everyone who’s ever heard of a cross burning in someone’s yard, everyone who’s ever had a rock thrown in her direction, every little black girl called ‘pickaninny,’ and every fifty-year-old black man who was still being called ‘boy.’ And, as sure as there’s a God in heaven, he’s writing about me!”

I am, in part, who I am today because Marie broke her silence and schooled me and the rest of my classmates in the reality that although we had grown up in the same country, we had never experienced anything remotely like what she had gone through. I began to understand that my skin isn’t “normal,” as in “normative.” It’s white, as white as can be, and because it is what it is, I was awarded countless privileges—and was granted a free pass from countless trials—by virtue of birth.


More generally but no less substantively, I also am who I am—a citizen of a nation that speaks English rather than German, that buys its clothes on the cheap, that rests on a solid financial foundation—because of the lives African American folks gave up for my sake. If I read Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Anchor, 2009) correctly, the Emancipation Proclamation was far from the last word on the enslavement of Americans. Debt slavery, indentured servitude, and sharecropping continued long after slavery was officially abolished. Myriad stories of the oppression of African American citizens from the late 1800s through the Second World War belie the technical equality guaranteed by the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The nation’s contradiction between ideals and fact reached its zenith in the famous Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision, which enabled the cruel Jim Crow policies that live in the memories of millions of Americans like Marie.

Though the weight of personal stories lies heavy on our conscience, the economic implications of an era of slavery by another name are staggering. African Americans were routinely arrested for such crimes as walking along the rightof- way of a train or entering a town without written proof of employment. Their sentences for such crimes were then sold to employers. Among these were Durham Coal and Coke, Tennessee Coal, Iron Railroad (later acquired by U.S. Steel), and Pratt Mines. Such companies offered inexpensive energy and raw materials—inexpensive relative to what their cost would have been if the labor force had been composed of non-“criminal” workers. Their cheap productivity contributed significantly to the national efforts in World Wars I and II against German aggression in Europe.

Perhaps it is stretching history too far to suggest that, had Germany won World War II, Americans would by now be speaking German. I make that leap, though, to point out that the United States was able to mount its successful war effort because a good share of the labor force at the foundation of the war machine were African Americans doing forced labor until their bodies gave out. While it is true that hundreds of thousands in the “greatest generation” made the supreme sacrifice on distant battlefields, victory and the shape of the world since were secured in no small part by nameless, unstoried men and women whose contributions are not chronicled in any standard history.


We Americans do not like to pay much for clothing, whether it is made from artificial materials and comes from China, Thailand, or the Marianas or whether it was made from cotton picked by barely compensated laborers in the American South, where cotton was once king. The cultivation of cotton was an especially labor-intensive affair, the more so because of the searing harvest-time temperatures of Southern states. Had the harvesters of cotton—enslaved men, women, and children—been compensated according to free-market principles, the profit margins of the plantation owners would have significantly decreased, or the consumer cost of shirts and underwear would have drastically increased. Fortunately for the consumer, she never had to face the problem. Profit margins could remain high, and cost to the consumer could remain artificially low, because the labor market was not free. The majority of Americans got a both/and out of the situation, and African Americans paid for that luxury.

Because of cotton’s accessibility and popularity, the vast majority of Americans grew accustomed to paying a small percentage of their income for clothing. And because money is fungible, what is not spent on clothing becomes available for other purposes: leisure, savings, food, investments.

The tradition of cheap clothing continues today, as labels bear witness to the places where our shirts and blouses are assembled: Thailand, Malaysia, Dominican Republic, China. We have never shaken our addiction to garments produced by pennies-an-hour labor and to systems, such as slavery, that mask the cost of producing our clothing.


I recently opened a bank account at the local Wells Fargo branch because there also is a branch where one of my children attends college. My local Wells Fargo had once been a branch of Wachovia, the Charlotte, North Carolina–based bank that Wells Fargo acquired in 2008. Before the acquisition, Wachovia had improved its assets when it bought First Atlanta Corporation. And First Atlanta’s assets had been built on the wealth created by the slave-driven brick factory owned by James W. English of Atlanta. English owned Durham Coal and Coke (see above) and the Chattahoochee Brick Company. His wealth was “inextricably tied to the enslavement of thousands of men” (Blackmon, 342) This is what life was like for those men: They “dug wet clay with shovels and picks in nearby riverbank pits for transport back to the plant. . . . Bricks were carried at a double-time pace by two dozen laborers running back and forth—under almost continual lashing by English’s overseer. . . . At each kiln, one worker stood atop a barrel, in the withering heat radiating from the fires, furiously tossing the bricks into the top of the ten-foot-high oven. . . . Witnesses testified that guards holding long horse whips struck any worker who slowed to a walk or paused. By the end of every day, 200,000 or more new bricks were loaded on the railcars” (344f.).

Who knows how much money Chattahoochee Brick made by purchasing human beings from the stockade? The point is, the money made from the blood and sweat of those African American men capitalized First Atlanta, which leveraged itself for profit to Wachovia, eventually becoming part of Wells Fargo. My life is thus made a wee bit easier because of the misery endured by those post-slavery enslaved men and the weary sighs of their wives and children.

If I am who I am because they were who they were, there is no such thing as “white history” and “black history.” No American of any hue can speak of “our” history and “their” history. There may well be two Americas—or more—but all Americas and all Americans share a common history. There is authentic history, narratives woven into a meaningful tapestry, earned and taught with sensitivity and completeness and justice. There also is an intentionally deficient narrative, a selective accumulation of facts and stories half-told at best. Until we get to the point when the common history tells the unvarnished truth to our children, we will need to set aside special times to hear the narratives of African Americans and Native Americans and Asian and Hispanic and all other Americans. We even need to hear the histories of European Americans, which have their own texture.

Our history is not merely a set of facts. We are our history, and it is us. We who inhabit the early years of the twenty-first century have built our lives on foundations laid by others. I am who I am, not only because of the contributions of African Americans, but because of the contributions made by all Americans, no matter their skin color or class or occupation. They went into the making of who I am, and even if in only an infinitesimal way, I contribute to who they are.

That’s why I observe Black History Month—not only because I won’t know African Americans without paying attention to their history, but because without it, I do not know myself.

Paul Janssen is pastor of Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge, New Jersey.