My eyes draw open, fixing on the silhouette of the spinning blades of the ceiling fan above my bed. After rustling about for an eternity, trying in vain to calm my mind and drift back to sleep, I lift my eye mask to signal my surrender to the flood of thoughts pounding on the door of my consciousness. It is mid-September, a dreary 5:18 am, where I am reminded of our country’s epic tragedy. Another black citizen has been murdered by the police—this time in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. A family is grieving. People are protesting. However, my compatriots do not unequivocally condemn yet another televised public execution. Instead, I am watching meaningless debates littering our social media with live-action murder, condemnation towards those who rise up against injustice, and the endless silence clogging the arteries of social progress.
As I lift my head from my pillow and open my iWindow to the world, I find a timely post on AAIHS by Peniel Joseph: “Black Lives Matter has cast a strobe-light on contemporary myths of racial progress, arguing correctly that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to a panoramic system of racial and class and gender and sexuality oppression.” Joseph’s piece exposes the lie of the heroic and victorious Civil Rights movement that poisons our communal psyche today. Akin to a tumor that has metastasized to the brain, the myth of racial progress has attached to North America’s frontal lobe clouding our ethical reasoning and moral judgment.
Why do we preserve our canon of fables preaching racial progress and harmony despite public state violence against black and Latino communities, intentional voter suppression, and housing and employment discrimination? Even though academic scholarship has documented over and over that any notion of idealized race relations in the United States is in fact a ”myth,” people still hold tight to the idea that we live in “a post-racial world,” that they “don’t see race,” and that racism is a problem of the past.
This is not only the North American dream. As a scholar of Latin American history, I often teach and give talks about the ways that myths of racial harmony persist well beyond our borders, even though those ideologies often look different in Latin America than they do in the United States. Fidel Castro dubbed his country a “Latin African” nation, while Brazil frequently celebrates its over 100 racial identity markers. In Latin America, ideas of racial harmony have been fused into national ideologies. Countries imagine themselves as integrated, mixed racial spaces, where everyone is Cuban, Colombian, Nicaraguan, etc. – except for those people who aren’t. Or Latin Americans who have dark skin and can’t get the best jobs, are profiled by the police, or are shot at while marching for black womens’ rights in Brazil. Still, the myths continue.
Myths about racial harmony and progress persist because they are tied to many things we all hold dear and when activists, citizens, or scholars try to disrupt these long established narratives things often go awry or even turn violent.
Ideas about racial harmony have long been linked to how Americans, throughout the hemisphere, imagine the nation. The United States preserves her pathology through self-deceptive language and traditions that celebrate 1776 as the birth of a “free” nation and the 4th of July as a moment of national pride for all, even through that date only represents liberation for white U.S. citizens.
Similarly, the Cuban nation was founded on its own version of racial harmony, called racelessness, in 1902. Cuba’s myth had somewhat more legitimacy since the island granted universal male suffrage to all Cuban men from the very beginning. However, in 1912, when black war veterans who had fought in the country’s 30-year long war of independence formed their own political party to combat racial discrimination and make a space for more black candidates on the electoral rosters, then President José Miguel Gómez massacred over 2,000 members of the party (the Partido Independiente de Color) and any other suspicious looking Afro-Cubans in the streets dubbing them “racists.” If we take the hate speech and death threats against Colin Kaepernick as evidence, the United States, like Cuba in the 1900s consistently labels those who attempt to sway their beloved countries from the perpetual nightmare as “racist, “unpatriotic” and a threat to civil society.
Gratefulness and ideas about appropriate behavior for people of color also influence the persistence of the myth of racial harmony. Notions of racial harmony and progress are founded on the belief that nations like the United States, Cuba, Brazil, and others gave “things” to people of African descent (initially freedom from slavery and later “equal” opportunities) and therefore blacks should be grateful and “act right.” Not only are these narratives false—slavery ended because of slave resistance and rebellion just as much as it ended from the goodwill of the abolitionist movement—they set up limits on how oppressed people of color can exert the accepted norms of citizenship. The backlash against Beyonce’s Formation video and Super Bowl performance mirror the ways that Afro-Cuban intellectual Roberto Zurbano was criticized for publishing a well-balanced analysis of Cuban race relations, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun” in the New York Times. In each case, U.S. Americans and Cubans were angry over the tactics black performers and activists used to present their message. Challenging black intellectuals about their tactics, rather than their content reveals how invested we all (across the color spectrum, because blacks and Latinos participate in this as well) in certain ideals of black respectability and appropriate behavior. But citizenship, justice, and equality are rights, not gifts. No one should have to send a thank you note to make a critique.
Myths of racial harmony have always been founded on some tangible achievements of racial progress such as passing abolition or voting rights laws, high levels of racial integration or mixture, and the success of a handful of black leaders like President Obama. I have seen all Americans, both in the United States and Latin America, buy into this aspect of the myth without seeing its limits. Once Cuba eliminated racially segregated social clubs in the 1960s (sometimes by closing Afro-Cuban clubs and integrating white ones, or by building new workers’ clubs), many Cubans of all colors celebrated this move as a step toward eliminating racial discrimination. The same is seen in the ways that U.S. Americans applauded school integration in the 1960s and 70s and how some continue to believe today that the biggest challenge facing our schools is that they are more racially segregated then ever. When did sitting next to someone of a different race achieve equality? By failing to challenge long accepted narratives of white supremacy, anti-blackness, and fears of black politics, these tangible and measurable “gains” have hidden deep-seated notions that people of African descent are inherently less of a person, dangerous, and that they don’t matter.
This phenomenon of persistent state violence, discrimination, and inequality coupled with strongly held beliefs about racial progress, harmony, democracy (whatever you choose to call your multi-cultural, diversity, we-all-get-along status) is mind-boggling. The only possible answer is that post-colonial and former slave societies are more comfortable lying to themselves, finding safety in rampant denial, and choosing blindness over justice than in confronting, fixing, and making amends for years of systematic racial inequality.
These myths do not need to be our false reality. The first step to liberation is to study history and inject all of the incredible scholarship that has shown the persistence of racial discrimination and racism (as well as the resistance to and resilience of blacks to these actions) into mainstream accounts of U.S. and Latin American history. If we want to understand the present moment and the all of the emotions that go with it we have to stop denying what our countries are. Destroy false narratives that say that patriotism means that we don’t have race problems, that black critiques of the nation and its policies are “out of bounds,” and that we have already reached the mountain top. We can’t wish anti-black or anti-Latino racism away. We have to do more than hope for a change. We have to fight for it. To embrace the contradictions of nationalism and patriotism, to listen and not make excuses, and to do the hard work to actually make racial harmony, democracy, and progress a lived experience for all. That is, however, only if we genuinely want racial equality at all.
Devyn Spence Benson is an Assistant Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies at Davidson College and the author of Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (UNC Press, 2016). Benson received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the field of Latin American History, where her research focused on racial politics during the first three years of the Cuban revolution. Follow her at Twitter @BensonDevyn.