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5.5 | a history to be proud of
V | CRITICAL RACE THEORY
The Western world, and America in particular, has parts of its history that we are not proud of. We cannot and should not cover up our mistakes or the mistakes of those who have gone before us. We must tell the whole truth of history and admit our failings as human beings. Anyone in a majority group – white people included – must also see where their group could have done more to build a better world.
John Newton was born in London in 1725. His father, John Sr., was a shipmaster, and his mother was the son of an instrument maker. She died of tuberculosis two weeks before his seventh birthday. At age 11 he began sailing with his father and began his shipping career, which would be marked by dishonor. At age 18, in 1743, his obstinance and disobedience caused him to be forced into service in the Royal Navy on the HMS Harwich. During this time he tried to desert and was continually punished. He once was tied to the grating on the deck of the ship in front of the crew of 350 men and received 96 lashes.
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Newton resolved after this incident to murder his captain and commit suicide by throwing himself overboard. He ultimately decided against it and was transferred to the slave ship Pegasus bound for West Africa. On this new ship, he often openly mocked the captain by creating obscene poems and songs about him that became so popular the rest of the crew knew them by heart. He had several major disagreements with the captain and crew that led to him almost being starved to death multiple times. At some point he was imprisoned at sea, enslaved and chained along with the slaves they carried.
On their arrival to West Africa in 1745, Newton was sold by his former captain to a slave trader named Amos Clowe. Clowe gave him to his wife, Princess Peye. She abused and mistreated Newton just as much as she did her other slaves. Newton later recounted this period as the time he was “once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa.”
In 1748, at age 23, he was rescued by a friend of his father who was captain of the ship Greyhound. Aboard this new ship, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.
In March, a violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard a crew member who was standing where Newton had been moments before. In his cabin, bursts of water came right through the wall of his room and soaked him to the bone. Along with the crew, he spent the whole night furiously pumping water off the ship’s deck trying to keep the ship from going under. Some of his fellow sailors lost their lives, but he managed to survive. In the midst of the storm, he cried out a very simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy.” He was struck by his own words. He had little to no time for God, and he cared nothing for mercy. He had never given God a first thought, much less a second one.
The Greyhound made it through the storm, and for weeks after, John Newton could not shake the memory of his prayer. He began to ask himself if he was worthy of God’s mercy or in any way redeemable. His depravity had known no bounds. He believed that he had directly opposed God. He was known to mock others who showed their faith, and he derided and denounced God as a myth. But he had come to believe that God had sent him a profound message and wanted to use him.
Newton started to read the Bible, and from that point on, in his own words, he avoided profanity, drinking and gambling, but he continued to work in the slave trade. In 1749 while still in West Africa, he asked God to take full control of his destiny. He later said that this was the first time in his life that he felt true peace. In 1754 he suffered a severe stroke and was forced to retire from the slave trade altogether, at which point he began serious religious study.
He moved back to England and began writing songs and poems. He became a sought-after preacher who mentored many young social figures in England. One of these was a man by the name of William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who had recently suffered a crisis of conscience regarding slavery and religious conversion while contemplating leaving politics. The younger man consulted with Newton, who encouraged Wilberforce to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was.” Along with Wilberforce, Newton was instrumental in abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire.
John Newton, the slaver, became an abolitionist and said: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders...I was greatly deficient in many respects ... I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”
Many argue that the greatest legacy left on our world by this obstinate, disobedient slave trader John Newton was an autobiographical song he wrote, published in 1779 by the title “Amazing Grace.” The wretch in the song is Newton himself.
During this same period in America, the world’s first organized antislavery society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in Philadelphia in April 1775, before the founding of America and just as the Revolutionary War began.
The first legal ban on slavery anywhere in the world took place in Vermont in July 1777. Vermont’s legislature banned slavery entirely and moved to provide full voting rights for all black males. Five of the original thirteen colonies followed suit either during or immediately after the war: Massachusetts (1781), New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut (1784), and Rhode Island (1784).
The first federal ban on slavery was drafted in 1784 and passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787, banning slavery in the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Territory went on to form six states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota. The language of this ban was later adopted directly into the Thirteenth Amendment.
In 1807, the United States outlawed the importation of slaves. William Wilberforce – who once sought John Newton for help – led the charge that same year to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom. On the cover of his 1807 Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Wilberforce provides a biblical basis for the abolition of slavery:
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness // Colossians 3:11-12
And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth // Acts 17:26 KJV
In 1821, Benjamin Lundy established the first American antislavery newspaper, the Genius of Universal Emancipation. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator. Another antislavery paper. It became one of the most famous antislavery newspapers in America and was published for 34 years. Elijah P. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister in Missouri, began his abolitionist newspaper, the St. Louis Observer in 1833. His printing press was destroyed three different times. The fourth time, it was thrown into the Mississippi River. He was attacked by a pro-slavery mob and killed when they came for his printing press the fifth time in 1837. His grave was left unmarked until 1897 to deter vandalism.
In 1836, after being convinced by William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips quit his law practice and dedicated himself completely to the abolition of slavery. He denounced the Constitution for tolerating slavery. In 1837, motivated by the death of Lovejoy, he became a leading voice in the abolitionist and equal rights movement for the rest of his life.
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an antislavery party. Its mission was to stop the spread of slavery into the new western territories, with the aim of abolishing it entirely.
In October 1859, John Brown and a group of abolitionists raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia. They intended to spread through the state of Virginia, freeing all its slaves along the way and building an army of freedmen to free slaves all throughout America. John’s father Owen was a noted abolitionist, and John Brown had planned a major attack on slavery for at least 20 years before his raid. It is said that he began his planning after committing to the cause of abolition at an abolitionist church. While unsuccessful, his raid is considered by many to be the final spark that set off the Civil War. Frederick Douglass believed that Brown’s “zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”
On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing more than 3.5 million enslaved people in America three years before the end of the Civil War and his assassination. It took 3 years for the Emancipation Proclamation to spread throughout the United States and was finally enforced in Texas in 1865. During the Civil War, more than 365,000 Union soldiers were killed and more than 282,000 were wounded fighting to reunite America and emancipate slaves.
By 1863, Harriet Tubman had already made a name for herself as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading hundreds of enslaved men, women and children from the South to freedom in the North. That year, she became the first and only women to lead a military expedition during the Civil War. She led 150 soldiers on three gunboats up the Combahee River in South Carolina for a surprise attack on prominent plantations. During this mission, they were able to rescue more than 700 slaves, 100 of which joined the Union army that day.
Abraham Galloway escaped slavery and returned to the South three years later to free other enslaved people. He posed as a slave to gather evidence from Confederate troops, set up a spy network and helped raise three regiments of “United States Colored Troops” comprising over 3,000 black men. In 1868 he became one of the first black men elected to the North Carolina legislature, fighting violent voter suppression by the KKK. During his tenure, he voted for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which granted citizenship and voting rights to black men.
Frederick Douglass was perhaps the most prominent black man in the United States throughout the 1800s. For 20 years he was a singular force in the abolitionist movement. He led the largest abolitionist newspaper in the country, the North Star, founded in 1847. He wrote three best-selling autobiographies describing his experiences as a slave. Douglass was also the first black person ever nominated for the vice presidency. He was instrumental in recruiting black soldiers for the Union army, and two of his sons were among the first to enlist. He was a prominent voice for freedom and human rights all of his life.
Susie King Taylor was born into slavery in 1848. After escaping with her uncle, at 14 years old she became the first black teacher to openly educate students in Georgia. Working as a nurse in Beaumont, South Carolina, she met and worked with Clara Barton, helping establish the American Red Cross. In 1902 she became the first and only black woman to write a book about her Civil War experience, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers.
In 1866, the first Civil Rights act in the United States was enacted. It was the first law in the U.S. to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are protected equally by law. It was mainly intended to protect the civil rights of people of African descent born in the United States after the end of the Civil War. It was passed by Congress and vetoed twice by President Andrew Johnson. A two-thirds majority in each chamber of Congress overrode the veto to allow it to become law without the President’s signature.
In 1870, Hiram Revels was the first black person elected to the United States Congress. He had organized two regiments of black troops and was a chaplain during the Civil War. He eventually became the first president of Alcorn State University. During the era of Reconstruction, hundreds of black men were elected to Southern state legislatures as Republicans, and twenty-two black Republicans served in the U.S. Congress by 1900. The Democrats elected their first black man to Congress in 1935.
Madam C.J. Walker was the first black American millionaire and first female self-made millionaire in America. She created the “Walker system” of hair care in 1906 and invented the world’s first hair-straightening formula and hot comb. Her reputation as an entrepreneur was outmatched only by her reputation for generosity. Walker promoted female talent and insisted that women were just as fit for leadership roles as men. She funded charities, helped fund and create the NAACP and the black YMCA, and instituted scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute.
Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 at the age of 25. He was the first black American to be invited to the White House in 1901 and became an advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. After his death in 1915, the Tuskegee Institute had 1,500 students, a faculty of 200 and an endowment of over $2 million ($52+ million in 2021 dollars).
W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black person in America to earn a doctorate, became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. He was a prolific author, writing 21 books and countless essays, articles and speeches. The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America are still modern bestsellers. He was instrumental in the creation of the Civil Rights Act, which embodied many of his suggested reforms. He is considered one of the fathers of Critical Race Theory, and his ideas are still central to much of that worldview.
We must tell the whole truth of history – both the parts we are ashamed of and the parts we are proud of. Both before and after the Civil War, systems of oppression and racism existed in the United States. I have no doubt that systems of oppression exist today. But there’s a difference between a system being oppressive and the system being oppressive. Slavery is an oppressive system, Jim Crow laws are oppressive, redlining is oppressive. These are great evils experienced by people of color.
Does the existence of oppressive systems mean that every law in society is oppressive? Does it mean that the purpose and mission of an entire country – America – is rooted in maintaining oppression? That the government itself, as long as it has existed, is hell-bent on oppressing minority groups? Does the existence of oppressive systems support the thesis that the fundamental problem facing society is white people?
Systems of oppression are hard to ignore. But the entire system being oppressive is hard to believe.
Although society has its share of evils, both now and in the past, there have always been good men and women. A proverb commonly attributed to Edmund Burke says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In times of crisis, there have always been good people from all walks of life willing to confront evil. The history of America shows us great tragedy but also always those who triumph in the face of it.
Does Critical Theory or CRT make room for the goodness of an individual? Maybe, but only if we find ourselves intersectionally and positionally oppressed. More often this kind of discourse is frequently hand-waved by supporters of CRT as being fragile or upholding a white supremacist perspective on history.
Without people like Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Susie King Taylor, Hiram Revels, Booker T. Washington, Madam C.J. Walker, W.E.B. Du Bois and many other black leaders before and after them, Emancipation and everything positive that has followed most likely would not have happened. CRT tells us that the history of America is monoethnic. It is a white history of America. The history of America is not white, and it’s not black. It’s people from all walks of life coming together for what George Washington called “the great experiment.” We need each other; we always have. Not just the oppressors. Not just the oppressed.
Based on objective facts of history, CRT fails to establish a reliable narrative that racism is “the usual way society does business.” The premise that racism and oppression are everywhere, in everyone, all the time does not ring true when observing the truth of history. It is true that we cannot remove the stains from our history. But we also cannot create a version of history that is only stains.
Look at John Newton. Look at William Wilberforce. Look at the many white American abolitionists. There are marked times in Western history, and the history of the world, where the “oppressor” destroyed their systems of oppression without any benefit to them personally. Many of these men also happened to change these oppressive systems because of an experience with God. Wilberforce and Newton are both examples of that. These white, male, cisgender, heterosexual Christians (read oppressors) led the charge to see slavery ended. One of the most oppressive systems in the history of the world did not end because it was problematized, dismantled and overthrown by the oppressed. It ended because good men decided to do something. These “good men” weren’t only white people, but there were good white men (and women). Denying the truth doesn’t change the facts.
Being a human being of any color, culture or creed is hard. We will all do things that we wish we didn’t do. Maybe not all of us are evil, but our hearts are capable of great wickedness. This is being human. CRT says the system is the issue. Kingdom says that we are the issue. All of us.
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