-- This is an essay I had to write as part of a job application. I've excised a few lines to conceal the identity of the employer to whom I make my case, because, as far as I'm concerned, it's none of their damned business. --
Somewhere along the line, in elementary school, I came across a biography of W.E.B DuBois. I read it and then, as best as I can remember, I didn’t pick up another book on African-American history for perhaps 15 years.
But that does not mean that I learned nothing more about the subject during that time. At what is now the Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School, I had a class in which Edward O’Daniel taught us about the Reconstruction period, the black codes and the three-fifths compromise. We watched ``The Diary of Miss Jane Pittman,’’ and when it was done, Mr. O’Daniel said he didn’t like the program because it made slavery look like paradise.
When I was 13, I started to learn tunes by Mississippi John Hurt; I liked the way they sounded when my guitar teacher played them. I moved on to Blind Blake, Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. This requires untold hours of practice. I absorbed with my hands, my ears and my heart the harmony, melody and rhythm of music that had been played by African Americans about 45 years earlier. I still wonder what it would have been like to be one of those musicians and one of the people who heard the songs when the songs were young.
In 1984, I read ``Let the Trumpet Sound,’’ a King biography by Stephen Oates. Since then I’ve read several books about southern American culture and African-American history. Studying African American history and African American culture is a robust way to understand United States history.
But in the meantime, large parts of Europe and the United States are ensnared in a dreaded historical pattern. Uncertainty, economic and otherwise, is fueling demagoguery. Among the scapegoats in the 20th century were German Americans, Japanese Americans, Jews, blacks and so-called Communists. During this century, transgender people and Muslims have been added to the list.
Bigotry is receiving a new application of fertilizer. Bigots define peoples and religions as foreign and sinister. Bigots embrace the fallacy that one can commit huge amounts of energy demonizing peoples and religions and, at the same time, understand them. This is impossible because to understand something one must clear the path to understanding. To do that one must put aside the underdeveloped ideas that impede the way. Bigots don’t try to clear the way. Instead, they make a career of insisting that they do. And they do it quite publicly. In Nazi Germany, they did it loudly and often enough to make it easy for Hannah Arendt to observe ``the curious contradiction between the totalitarians’ avowed cynical `realism’ and their conspicuous disdain of the whole texture of reality.’’
The result, as Geoffrey Chaucer puts it, is something like a cacophony. ``Thus they kept up the jangle of debate/As the illiterate are wont to do/When subtler things are offered to their view/Than their unletterterdness can comprehend/They reach the wrong conclusions in the end.’’
A few years ago I was very gratified to see that in one Belchertown classroom the objective was to learn about Islamic religion and culture. I imagine that school personnel looked around, became aware of the suffering of American Muslims and developed a curriculum that would help kids learn about Islam in a responsible location, the classroom. Rather than ``on the streets.’’ That is, from the bigots.