Changing Our Narrative

 by Rev. Fred L Hammond 7 October 2012 ©

Last spring I delivered a sermon on the Doctrine of Discovery, a 550 year plus old document that set in motion the underlying narrative of the United States of America.  I talked about this doctrine then because our Unitarian Universalist Association was submitting a resolution to our Justice General Assembly in Phoenix to renounce this Doctrine of Discovery and request that all laws that reflect this papal decree be removed from our governing bodies. The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority of those congregational delegates present.

The story of this country is cast with this doctrine as a preamble to our history and the majority of our country’s actions have the spirit of this doctrine imbedded within them.  To remind us what the Doctrine of Discovery states, let me quote again Pope Nicholas V who in 1452 wrote:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

Pope Nicholas V wrote another edict to protect Portugal from other Christian nations laying claim to lands already claimed by Portugal.  And in 1493, Pope Alexander XI expanded this edict to allow other Christian nations to also lay claim to lands not already claimed by Portugal and gave Christopher Columbus the right to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

So the historical narrative of the United States essentially begins in 1492.  We know the poem entitled The History of the U.S[ii]. written in 1919, which begins with the stanza:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And found this land, land of the Free,
Beloved by you, beloved by me.

It implies that prior to 1492 this land was uninhabited, unknown to anyone, per se.  Columbus found it and introduced to this land European civility—or so we were taught in school.  Yet, there were people already here with a culture that was long established.  Howard Zinn[iii] writes in A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present   “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

Another poem entitled In 1492 by Jean Marzollo first published in 1948 about Christopher Columbus contain these closing stanzas

The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American?  No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

This isn’t exactly what happened after Columbus landed in the Caribbean but it is what we teach our children.  Some histories will make mention that the encounter of Columbus and his crew with the native peoples of the island went according to Columbus’ plan of enslavement and genocide but this mention is equivalent to a footnote.  While these histories do not deny the atrocities they do not make it central to Columbus’ mission. Columbus wrote the following to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand[iv],

I took by force six of the Indians from the first island, and intend to carry them to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose instead to have them all transported to Spain, or held captive on the island. These people are very simple in matters of war… I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased… They are very clever and honest, display great liberality, and will give whatever they possess for a trifle or for nothing at all… Whether there exists any such thing as private property among them I have not been able to ascertain… As they appear to have no religion, I believe they would very readily become Christians… They would make good servants… They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow, and do aught else that may be needed, …

To sum up the great profits of this voyage, I am able to promise, for a trifling assistance from your Majesties, any quantity of gold, drugs, cotton, mastic, aloe, and as many slaves for maritime service as your Majesties may stand in need of.”

In the short time after Columbus’ arrival the population of what is now known as Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba was reduced from 3 million to 60,000.  The people of these islands died; some to European diseases like small pox and others through genocidal killing and suicide for not being able to secure the gold amounts desired.

Howard Zinn in his text writes[v], To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.”

And this has been our stance in the Americas ever since. We called it by many names; Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and today American Exceptionalism. It is a part of our narrative that covers up or hides many sins that we have committed as a nation.  And it is this narrative that we teach our children in schools.  America is best.  America is the greatest.  America is the home of the brave and land of the free.  America can do wrong in its eyes.

Of course the question arises, who is this America.  From the earliest days of this republic it was white men who were America. This is a White supremacist narrative that is presented to the world.

Congress in 1790 enacted this law:  All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.[vi]

Now in 1790 all the rights of citizenship only pertained to white men who owned property, white women were not granted all the rights of citizenship. And in many states Jews and Catholics were also not granted all the rights of citizenship.  The definition of who was white in America was narrowly determined. Benjamin Franklin gives a definition of whiteness in 1751:  “[vii]That the Number of purely   white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is   black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians,   French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call   a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only   excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People   on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.”

Today there are texts written entitled How Jews became White Folks and How the Irish became White.  Our narrative as a nation was told from the perspective of Whites as the only sanctioned narrative.  To go against this narrative is considered sedition. That is a strong statement but it is a true statement nonetheless.

Especially if you listen to some of the conservative voices in this country going against the narrative is indeed seditious.  The narrative of America as told is being destroyed by having a Black president.  Te-Nehisi Coates[viii] in his article in Atlantic Monthly proposes that the furor over whether Obama has an American Birth Certificate or proclaiming him to be a Muslim is a means to maintain the white narrative of America.  If Obama is not an American or is a Muslim then he is not really the president of the USA and the white narrative of America is preserved.  There is a photo going around FaceBook of a poster at a Koch Brothers sponsored protest against Occupy New York that reads, “I’m dreaming of a White President just like the ones we use to have…”

Preserve the narrative of America at all costs.  Obey our laws, obey our cultural norms.  Do not disrupt the 550 plus years of white narrative that declares whites as superior over all others.   In 1635[ix], a native person allegedly killed an Englishman in Maryland. The English demanded the native be handed over to them for punishment under English law.  The chief answered how they would handle the native and refused, saying “you are here strangers, and come into our country, you should rather conform yourselves to the customs of our country, than impose yours upon us.”   But to do that would have made the doctrine of discovery invalid.  It would have changed the narrative of supremacy.

Arizona HB2281 which was signed into law and into effect December 2011 banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools.  The ethnic studies specifically banned were Latino ethnic studies.  This law states that “School[s] in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. 1.    Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
  2. 2.    Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  3. 3.    Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

At the heart of this ban is a course of studies that were taught at the public schools in Tucson, AZ. Tucson is a community of about 47% Anglo, 42% Latino and the remaining 11% being Black, Native American, or Asian.  In the public school district the demographics change because many whites attend private or charter schools making Latinos to account for 62% of the student population.

The Mexican American Studies program was considered seditious because it taught the history of the indigenous people of the America’s from the perspective of the indigenous people.  History of the indigenous people did not begin in Europe with the Greco and Roman empires but rather with the Aztec’s and Mayan’s.  Columbus’ arrival was not the heroic event that unfurled the ability of Europeans seeking to breathe free but rather as the beginning of an invasion that destroyed civilizations and enslaved and ransacked human and natural resources. It placed the context of the land of Arizona in its thousands of year old histories of a proud people who lived in this land and had its resources taken away from them, first by the Mexican government and then by the United States government. The bumper sticker of the immigrant rights movement, ‘we didn’t cross the border the border crossed us’ is not just a sound bite it is an historic fact of a people living in the southwest.

Theirs is a narrative that highlighted the values of community that holds itself together. The sharing and generosity that Columbus found in the Taino tribe of the Arawak people is not seen as a weakness but as a strength of their heritage.    Yet, it is this ethnic solidarity in a community value that was made illegal by the Arizona law in favor of the strident American individualism. American individualism where the pursuit of capital gain is not to uplift the society but only to increase the privilege and power of the one receiving the gain.  This is not the society that neither Columbus nor any of the Europeans encountered when they arrived on these shores.  Europeans encountered the culture of Iroquois Chief Hiawatha, who said, [x]We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness.” A Jesuit priest who encountered the Iroquois wrote, [xi]No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers… their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common…”

And while I am not so naïve to think that the native cultures of the America’s was idyllic, these are narratives that need to be incorporated into the American narrative as a whole in order to sort out and sift the wheat from the chaff.  There are aspects of cultures found right here in these lands that could aid in the redemption of the American narrative that has spawned centuries of white supremacy and violent racism against others.

The Mexican American Studies program was one of those programs that sought American redemption through the telling of a history from the perspective of the native people’s point of view.  These students have the potential to contribute to our society if they are given the tools to understand where they fit in the narrative of this country.  They get to begin to rewrite that narrative to include their achievements, their cultural contributions.

The high school drop out rate of Latino’s nationally hovers around 56%.  The Tucson school district after implementing their Mexican American Studies program found the drop out rate decrease to 2.5% in the school district. Tucson students who attended this program did better in state exams as compared to their peers in other schools.  The students found that they found a reason why education was important for them to pursue. They discovered that education was relevant to their life experiences.

Clergy in Tucson[xii] wrote a letter in support of the Mexican American Studies program.  They wrote:

“As people of faith, we recognize how important our history and stories are to us. Scriptures are nothing more than the passed down stories of people who wanted their children and their children’s children to remember the ways in which God had moved within their lives and in the course of human history to bring forth freedom from slavery, forgiveness from retribution, love from hate, and grace from sin. The history of the people of faith within sacred scripture has never been the dominant history; our history is not the history of Egypt but the history of the Hebrew slaves, not the history of Babylon but the history of those carried away into captivity, not the history of Herod but the history of a refugee family who had to flee to Egypt, not the history of Rome but the history of a peasant named Jesus and his followers.” The same is true of the Mexican American Studies program; it is a history of a conquered people, the indigenous people of these lands.

Howard Zinn recalls a statement he once read that stated, [xiii]The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

Yes, the story the Mexican American Studies program tells is counter to the narrative of this nation but it’s aim is not to raise up people with seditious acts but rather to honor the lives of those lost.  To glean from their stories the richness of their lives and the lessons their lives still have to offer us.

It may come as a bit of surprise to folks that tomorrow has two names as the holiday.  It is Columbus Day, a day in which Alabama anyway, seeks to honor those of Italian heritage. It is also American Indian Heritage Day, a day to honor the contributions of the native peoples from these lands.  It may seem odd that Alabama is only one of a few states and municipalities that honor the native people of this land officially. I hope Alabama gets why honoring Native Americans tomorrow is so important in our country.

This state also continues to honor Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Memorial Day.  And I think I now get why it is important for Alabama to honor and remember these people from a painful time in our nation’s history when ideologies clashed so brutally.

In order to fully live up to our potential as a people we need to understand our story as a nation. We need to change our narrative to include the fullness of our story; the good, bad, and ugly truths of our story.  It would be easy and it has been easy for parts of our history to fade away because they are too shameful, to painful to face.  We have done this in America.  We have tried to forget the Japanese Interment camps during World War Two. We have tried to forget the turmoil and unrest of the Civil Rights era.  We have tried to forget the brutal murders of sexual minorities like Matthew Shepard and the thousands who commit suicide because their sexual orientation is not viewed acceptable by society. And I am sure there are some of us who would prefer that the Undocumented remain in the shadows of America.

But if this country is to live up to its most sacred creed, then we must do its work to undo white supremacy and white privilege where ever it is established. It does not serve us well, it never ever did.

[i] http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html

[ii] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2274/where-does-that-1492-ocean-blue-thing-about-columbus-come-from  Poem written by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.

[iii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 72-75  | Added on Wednesday, October 03, 2012, 04:41 PM

[iv] http://red-coral.net/Columb.html  from the poem Columbus in the Bay of Pigs by John Curl

[v] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 214-16  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:02 PM

[vi] As found in the article “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[vii] http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html

[viii] “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[ix] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn) – Highlight Loc. 456-60  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:39 PM

[x] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 426-31

[xi] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 431-35

[xii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2011/06/21/faith-leaders-ethnic-studies-program-is-a-valuable-educational-program

[xiii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 252-53  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:09 PM

2 Comments

  1. Begging your pardon (I thoroughly appreciated this piece) I think you may have meant to say America can do no wrong in its eyes at the end of the paragraph below. Forgive me if I am wrong. Ina Sims

    Ina, thank you for your comment. I understand why you would think this as it does work in that place as well. This sentence refers back to what children are taught in schools about America. The next paragraph refers to who is teaching this narrative and what that narrative is.

  2. Far too much of what passes as American history is jingoism and bigotry. It is refreshing to know that some religious groups such as the UUs are recognizing the errors of the past and are trying to correct them.


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