I study history for many reasons–to understand the present, to see what has been tried and what has succeeded, and because it makes me feel spiritually connected to my fellow human travelers, past, present and future. Sadly, I do not study history to ensure it does not repeat itself. Much as I wish it could, I truly don’t know if studying history can prevent horrific violence like the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso this past weekend.
When I first heard about the El Paso shooter’s reference to an invasion by Mexican people, I thought, in anger and outrage, “What an idiot! Doesn’t he even know that Texas belonged to Mexico before it belonged to the U.S.? Doesn’t he know native people lived there before Spain or England got involved? WTF is he thinking?” This is in addition to many, many other thoughts, including, why do these cowards always go for vulnerable, innocent people. Could you possibly pick something more heinous than to target families back-to-school shopping? But it does not matter whether he knew the history of Texas or not, because likely he believed that the borders of the continental United States, established in 1856 with the Gadsden Purchase, were ordained by God (or Odin, or whoever the white nationalists are into these days) to be populated by white people. I wonder if his vision extends to other territory the United States had seized, such as Jarvis and Baker Islands, taken under the Guano Island Acts of 1856? The arbitrary nature of nation-state boundaries apparently does not present a problem to the thinking of terrorists such as the El Paso shooter, because they feel the more space white people can claim, the better.
I thought about the President’s claims that Mexican immigrants bring crime, and I wondered why these shooters don’t try to hurt people that they believe to be criminals? Why did he attack shoppers in a Wal Mart, and why did the shooter in the 2015 terrorist murders in Charleston, S.C. choose congregants participating in a Bible study? I suppose the answer is because a) they are despicable cowards and b) their hateful racism allows them to be despicable cowards. What I mean is, if they convince themselves, or are convinced, that all people of a certain race (or religion, or ethnicity) are subhuman and pose a threat, then it doesn’t matter if the people in question are holding Bible study or picking out crayons for their children’s back-to-school list. If this shooter wanted to actually go after people he thought were criminals, or people who were committing violence, he could have (which, of course, I am not suggesting or condoning). But he didn’t. He went for the easiest, the most defenseless.
As a historian, I cannot help but think of these events in historical terms and in relation to the concepts I was taught about American history. One of those concepts is that civil rights are generally improving in this country. I keep thinking of the 1963 Birmingham 16th Street Church bombing. That tragic, horrific white terrorist attack is discussed in most American history books as an example of the dark days of racial hatred in our country. From what I can see, the dark days are still upon us.
Writing about this makes me sick, but not as sick saying nothing. I don’t know whether sharing thoughts on social media has any effect, especially since most, but not all, of the people who follow my social media already feel the same way I do. But at the very least, writing this helps me process, and makes me think about next steps.
I think of my musical inspirations at this time, especially the folk musicians/activists of the 1960s. Richard and Mimi Farina wrote “Bold Maraurder” about the Ku Klux Klan, and “Michael, Andrew and James” about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, civil rights activists killed in violence fueled by anti-black and anti-semitic sentiment. I think of Joan Baez, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, who have both contributed so many songs to the various struggles for civil and human rights it is difficult to know where to start in naming them. For Joan, there is “Gracias a la Vida,” a song written by Violeta Parra, and of course, “We Shall Overcome.” For Buffy Sainte-Marie, there is “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” all the way up to “Power in the Blood.”
Richard and Mimi Farina, unfortunately, both died young, he in a tragic motorcycle accident and she to cancer. But Joan and Buffy are still performing, still speaking and still fighting. (Technically Joan just wrapped up her farewell tour, though she says she intends to stay politically active). The reason these women are so important to me is because they continue to show up, time after time, decade after decade, tragedy after tragedy. I do wonder what it must be like to walk side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington, and then also live through our current climate of racism and hatred? What must it be like to stand up against the injustice of the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, and then watch the U.S. government trample sovereign rights and people over the Dakota Access Pipeline?
Many Americans today are tired. We are tired of the hate, the violence, the news reports, the thoughts and prayers, the vigils, the warmed-over arguments. And that is precisely why I have so much respect for, and feel so inspired by, the activists who have been at it for decades, and who continue to fight. I don’t know ultimately, if whatever work we can accomplish now will be wiped out or forgotten by future generations. History may well repeat itself, but I will not let that stop me from fighting for change in the here and now.