Why Black History Matters in White Places

Men Yellowstone
Men pose in Yellowstone National Park in 1901. Image credit: Montana’s African American Heritage Resources

By Anthony Wood

I have always been curious why footage of a policeman shooting an unarmed black man in the back does not incite more rage and indignation from compassionate, even somewhat liberal westerners. Why, when the immorality of the event is without question, do we still encounter so many people whose first reaction is to consider the culpability of the victim?

Had he committed a crime? Was he asked to comply? Why was he running away in the first place?

If you leave the halls of academia and travel around red-state Montana, these are the questions that you will hear.  Some try to convince family and friends of the latent racism in those questions, and of the persisting inequality of the system which gave rise to this epidemic of brutality against young men of color across this nation.

But too often, it is to no avail.

The historian, then, needs to ask why that is. What are the past realities that have embedded this predisposition into people who have grown up so far (geographically at least) from the streets of Chicago, Atlanta, or Ferguson? What is stopping decent people living in “white” places from admitting that Black Lives Matter? Part of the problem is the way that black history in places like Montana is presented to the public—either not at all, or in such a way that it seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the collective memory of the people living here. In recent years, local and public historians have attacked that first issue with gusto. In Montana, presentations and lectures on black history in cities across the state have increased. Organizations such as the Extreme History Project and the Montana Racial Equity Project have pursued a campaign of education and activism on this front. In the state capital, the Montana Historical Society has recently been putting the finishing touches on Montana’s African American Heritage Places Project, some ten years in the making. I place great hope in these and other attempts to illuminate Montana’s black history to make some positive change. However, black history in white places faces yet another challenge. It is often far too easy to deny that the lives of historic black Montanans had any bearing on the larger white population’s constructed identity. Black history, for many Montanans, may be interesting and engaging, but they still fail to see how it matters.

The past, or more precisely, how we understand and conceive of the past, directly impacts the construction of our sense of place and identity. This process contributes to and is enabled by a shared cultural memory. In much of America, the collective memory of a community tends to have some basis in the historical realities of slavery, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights Movement—foundational issues in national history. Yet, in (supposedly) far-removed places like the Rocky Mountain West, many of these national issues surrounding race do not fit into the regional narrative that has come to inform westerners’ construction of their identity. The history of African Americans who came, struggled, lived, and died in Montana and the West is too often seen as an extension of southern or northern historical narratives and, though their stories took place here, they are not considered “western.”

This is the crux of the issue. Is African American history in the West truly western history? Of course it is.

The West does not merely act as a new setting for other regions’ historical narratives to be played out. But too often our inability to convey the black history of the region as distinct or unique, leads to its inevitable “othering.” In this way, current issues—which are thoroughly couched in the history of racism—are thus viewed as foreign in many western contexts precisely because the region has rejected much of its own racial history as non-western.  

Two steps must be taken to remedy this damaging reality. The first, as I have mentioned, is already underway in Montana and other western locations. Historians must strive to educate the public on the very existence of the West’s black history. The intermountain West is among the least black regions in the nation. Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have the smallest proportion of blacks in their populations of any states in the nation. Montana, at the very bottom of that list has roughly 4,000 African Americans, which accounts for less than 0.8 per cent of all Montanans. At times, its current demographics seem to belay the true diversity of its past. For that reason, the second step remains the most challenging: showing how a distinctly western structure of racism acted as the framework in which whites and blacks alike interacted and came to understand themselves as westerners. This western racism evolved out of various ideologies, policies, and legal precedents.  As the West came to be seen increasingly as a “white” space at the close of the 19th century, legal and societal measures were taken to destabilize, dismantle, and displace communities of color from large swaths of the American West. Coupling these factors with the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and new industrial jobs becoming available along the West Coast and northeastern cities, the interior Rocky Mountain West slowly lost many of its black, Chinese, and other minority populations. The history of race and racism cannot be divorced from the history of the West.

At present, numerous issues pertaining to race, such as the deep divide and mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement across the country, the continued inequality in the housing and employment opportunities, and the incredibly high rate of incarceration of young black men, are seen as disconnected from, or irrelevant to, a sizable population of “white places.” The way that many Montanans view themselves and construct their cultural identity has left no room for black history. Sadly, a result of this may be that in places where black history does not matter, neither will black lives. There is hope, though.

The reality is that the West’s past is built upon the experiences of its many minorities. Educators and public historians may never have had a more acute cause than to present the West’s black history in its full and unfettered significance to all people. It has the potential to have an immeasurable positive impact on everyone living in Montana and across the “white places” of the West. And with any luck, more people will come to see that Black Lives, like black history, Matters.

Anthony Wood is a history master’s student at Montana State University studying African American history and race in the West. He is also a project historian for the African American Heritage Resources

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One thought on “Why Black History Matters in White Places

  1. Glad I found your piece. I’ve been thinking about this with respect to Minnesota. Although more diverse than Montana, many communities and counties are largely white but more to your point, within the public’s narrative of its past, African Americans play no role. In addition to being factually incorrect (on a local, state and national level) in terms of the historical record, it also allows a cognitive dissonance or plausible deniability. I see this especially in law enforcement, but probably in other areas (housing, transportation, employment, etc.) Frankly, this realization probably only came to me because I moved from the north to the south, where the public landscape of Segregation, Jim Crow and the Civil War makes it impossible to avoid.

    Like

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