The history of enslavement and American apartheid segregation has permanently disfigured politics in this country.
“Abraham Lincoln hoped to win the war and then send black people out of the country.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Margaret Kimberley. Kimberley is Editor and Senior Columnist of the Black Agenda Report. Her book is Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Margaret Kimberley: Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents demonstrates that the history of enslavement, followed by American apartheid segregation, has permanently disfigured politics in this country. The slavocracy was mollified from the earliest days of the country. They insisted on building a capital located firmly within the sphere of the plantation economy. Ten of the first twelve presidents were slaveholders. These facts make clear that the subjugation of the black population would remain a political imperative, even after emancipation.
In 2020 we are still doing what we did beginning in 1865. We make political decisions based on the goal of defeating whichever of the two major parties represents white racism.
For 100 years the Democrats were the party of southern segregationists, Republicans were the party of Lincoln, and they were trusted to keep the Dixiecrats at bay. That dynamic changed at times with Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. But the process of trying to keep “good for black people” presidents in office resulted in betrayals with Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt. Frustration with Republican lip service led to black leaders of the day endorsing Woodrow Wilson, an unreconstructed southerner who practiced his own betrayal and segregated the District of Columbia and screened Birth of a Nation, the KKK homage, inside the White House itself.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Hopefully they will throw away the 150-year old discredited playbook of trying to keep the “white” party out of power. Black people are now at their lowest political ebb, with compromised leadership and a political party, the Democrats, who take them for granted and can’t even guarantee being elected. Love for Barack Obama and allegiance to the problematic Hillary Clinton didn’t prevent the racist Donald Trump from taking office.
Disgust and fear of Trump and disappointment in lesser evilism are the least of our problems at this juncture. We are in a failing system and the degree of rot is accelerating rapidly. Wages have been stagnant for 30 years and the paltry minimum wage hasn’t gone up in more than 10 years, even when Democrats had the opportunity to take action and raise it.
Forever wars and the Trump administration’s recent attack on Iran are symptoms of a collapsing but still dangerous empire that cannot get its way as often as it wants.
Black people must end their dependence on the hapless Democratic Party and look for new ways to advance the people. The system can’t be shored up; it must be dismantled. The old ways failed black people 100 years ago. As our society circles the drain ever faster we must discuss how to bring about something new and transformational.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
We must unlearn the history we were taught since grade school. A new capital was built on a swamp in order to keep it within the bounds of slavocracy control. Abraham Lincoln hoped to win the war and then send black people out of the country. Bill Clinton was hugely popular with black voters but he increased mass incarceration, and ended the 60-year old right to public assistance. Barack Obama was beloved despite having no interest in the black community except as a target for scolding and dog whistling to assure white voters that he was really on their side.
The extent of lies told by historians and biographers is worse than I thought before I began researching this book. They are usually more interested in preserving system justification and supporting the status quo. Lincoln remained a devotee of colonization plans to send black people out of the country until the end of his life. Cursory research shows that this is true. The information is not top secret or difficult to find. Yet it has been censored by Lincoln admiring historians who teach lies about him and other presidents when doing so preserves the myth of a benevolent nation.
Presidents are touchstones with markers telling us where they slept and schools, states, and cities named after them. They have their own holiday but some of them bought and sold human beings. They displaced millions of others from their ancestral homes in order to secure ownership of the first group. They either identified with overt white supremacy or justified acquiescence to that ideology.
The ideology of white supremacy and its perverse relationship with exceptionalism and benevolence is one that must end.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My Black Agenda Report colleagues such as my co-founders Glen Ford and the late Bruce Dixon both educated me greatly. I thought of myself as well informed but I learned more useful information from them than I did in my college education as a history major. The entire Black Agenda Report team is an amazing resource for anyone who wants to understand national and international conditions and how they relate to the black diaspora.
My heroes are people who are leftists, not Democrats, but people firmly committed to socialist action and scholarship. That political orientation is necessary in order to dissect American history. Unfortunately, the teaching of history almost always leaves leftist analysis out and repeats useless bourgeois interpretations. Perhaps I shouldn’t say useless. The determination to carry on the dissemination of fairy tales about this country being a “force for good” is useful to someone. Just not to us.
“The teaching of history almost always leaves leftist analysis out and repeats useless bourgeois interpretations.”
I need to do more research about the scholars and activists whose stories have been erased. I want to know more about people like Claudia Jones, whose existence I only discovered about 10 years ago when I was well into middle age.
Thanks to your work with Black Agenda Report Book Forum I have come to know the work of other scholars who see the world as I do and not the bourgeois Eurocentric views I was taught and accepted for most of my life.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
First we must be clear on how the past brought us to our current state. Knowing that our politics are driven by a misperception that we must side with one wing of the dismal duopoly will allow readers to free themselves from a failed and dangerous orthodoxy.
The Democratic Party is not the solution. They are the problem and their institutional corruption gave us Donald Trump, a president loathed and feared by black people more than any other in the modern era.
In this 2020 election year black people must do anything but “vote blue no matter who.” That is a recipe for defeat and guarantees getting the opposite of what we want. We have seen this movie and we know the ending. We must upend everything we have been taught and dare to think that we can have what we are told is impossible, a true democracy that treats its people with care and justice.
Understanding the history of our relationships with 45 presidents forces us to see what worked and figure out how to repeat successes. Of course we must also identify what didn’t work and commit ourselves to leaving failed practices in the past.
We know that we have made the greatest strides when we struggled for self-determination. Usually we did so against the wishes of the people we supported and elected into office. We can’t have amnesia about those struggles if we want to create a different reality for our people.
The story of our relationships with 45 presidents is mostly sad. That realization doesn’t have to bring us down. It can inspire us to do what we are told is impossible, to have a just and peaceful country that frees itself from its awful past. We must do what we have been told can’t be done. Repeating failure because we think that Trump is the worst president, he isn’t, is a rejection of a great legacy and consigns us to live in a country that will never advance.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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