Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2008

Painful black history shouldn’t be ignored

August 10, 2008


First James Cameron died and now they've closed his museum.

If it had to happen, I'm glad it happened in that order, glad Cameron did not live to see them padlock the institution to which he dedicated his life. I met Cameron in 1994 when I went to Milwaukee to interview him about his book, "A Time of Terror." In it, he recounts his hairsbreadth escape in August 1930 from a white lynch mob in Marion, Ind., that had already murdered two of his friends.

Sixty-four years later, just talking about it still made him weep. Cameron went on to found what he called America's Black Holocaust Museum, thought to be the only one in the country dedicated to memorializing a time when racial violence was rampant and widely accepted.

In 2006, after years of failing health, the 92-year-old Cameron died. His museum may suffer the same fate.

Officially, the facility's closure on the last day of July is only temporary as it negotiates with lenders and the city in hopes of carving out some breathing room. According to Reggie Jackson, chairman of the museum's board of directors, its primary support has always come from foundations, and that money dried up when Cameron died. Jackson is seeking donors to help keep the museum alive. If you'd like to help, you can find information online at:

I wish Jackson every success. The permanent closure of this museum would be a loss not simply for Milwaukee, but for the nation as a whole. It spotlights those parts of black that are most critical for us to know and yet most fiercely resisted.

I should know. I feel that resistance firsthand every time I write about slavery or Jim Crow and make what strikes some of my readers as the absolutely ludicrous argument that these things help explain the plight of African-America today. If I had a dollar for every white guy who told me to stop living in the past, I'd be too rich to take abuse from white guys telling me to stop living in the past.

They see in me a fellow who spends too much time carping about that which is dead and done and has no bearing on the here and now. I see in them people so discomfited by this history they can't even think straight. I mean, if I were to argue, say, that the industrial boom of World War II helps explain America's emergence as a superpower, would anyone see that as being stuck in past? No. They would think it quite unremarkable to invoke the past as a means of understanding the present.

The difference is, that history makes no demands upon white guilt. Black history, unavoidably, does.

Not that white people are the only ones who resist. Sometimes, black folks do, too. I once heard Oprah Winfrey complain that "Beloved," her painful excavation of the emotional terrain of slavery, was a hard sell with black audiences. Indeed, when I went to interview witnesses to the night Cameron almost died and two other men did, a black woman snapped at me for bringing it up.

Because if some resist history that might make them feel guilty, others are equally determined to avoid history that might make them feel bad.

But if you don't understand what was, you can't understand what is. If, for instance, you don't know how sheriffs falsely arrested black men and sold them as slaves until World War II, how they brutalized blacks who sought to vote or otherwise behave like citizens, you cannot truly understand blacks' overinvolvement in, or distrust of, the justice system to this very day.

James Cameron's museum memorializes a history that discomfits - and is vital precisely because it does, because it tells a story many of us would as soon not know. And I take it back. If I had a dollar for every white guy who told me to stop living in the past, I would send it to Milwaukee.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


denak 9 years, 7 months ago

Mr. Pitts is correct. I am surprised there are only two responses to this column. Usually, the minute Mr. Pitts writes about race, he is jumped on by the more reactionary and ignorant elements in our society. In order to sell their viewpoint, they try to paint Mr. Pitts as a racist.Anyway, I don't know anything about this museum. But I think it is important to have it so that there is a place to go to understand and to remember these events.As uncomfortable as it might be to go to the Holocaust Museaum in Washington D.C., people go so that they can understand and remember. There should be a place for what happened in African-American History.People need to understand that this history isn't so far gone. My son's aunt grew up in Birmingham Alabama. She knew the three of the four little girls who were blown up in the 16th Street Bapitist Church bombing in 1963. When you still have people alive, who were victims and/or witnessed these atrocity, it is the hight of arrogance and insensitivity to suggest that they "get over it" or that "it is in the past." This is why we need a museum like this. For those who lived it and more importantly for those who tell people to "get over it."Dena

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 7 months ago

"Painful black history shouldn't be ignored"... it should be supplanted in a more enlightened present towarda less painful future.

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 7 months ago

I wasn't suggesting that victims "get over it."I was suggesting that we get beyond it.( That's an enlightened, collective we. )

jonas 9 years, 7 months ago

"This high rate of abortion has decimated the black family and destroyed black neighborhoods to the detriment of society at large."Or, perhaps, that the high rate of abortions is caused by the decimation of the black family and neighborhoods. I imagine if you want to take this tack, then we could find comprehensive evidence that the biggest cause of poverty is abortion, at least based on correlation. But I don't feel like taking that kind of time.

jaywalker 9 years, 7 months ago

Justfornow, if that was supposed to be funny, it wasn't.With the first three sentences, I thought "noone could be this irretrievably stupid, it has to be sarcasm." Then your last sentence affirmed you'd be better off posting in the Star, where the absolute scum of the area post without censure. There's a lot of ignorance posted on these strings, and I don't really want to show my prejudice here, but this site is for 'humans' only. You're not welcome.

jonas 9 years, 7 months ago

Quote from Parkay's link, of course.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

justfornow-- posting on this forum is obviously an opportunity for which you are not yet ready.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.