Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: History, however inconvenient to today’s politics, cannot be forgotten

What, if anything, is owed to specific groups of human beings who have been wronged by other groups of human beings makes frequent headlines. As Americans, and people around the globe for that matter, move steadily into an uncertain future, some continue to train their gaze backward to a past others would just as soon forget.

Forgetting, though, is bad public policy.

In the case of the United States, the subject is often slavery and the subsequent (and ongoing) treatment of Black people. In the forefront of the discussion these days is Gov. Ron DeSantis' Florida administration, which has drawn support and criticism for its "anti-woke" revisions in curriculum about the experiences of Black people in U.S. history.

New laws in the Sunshine State constrain how teachers can explore the complexities of race and the nation's seminal failure, the enslavement of other humans. One law seeks to prohibit reflections on past actions that might make a student "feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress" because they're the same race as those who committed atrocities in prior generations. Curriculum standards released in the summer said Florida students should be taught that slaves "developed skills" they could use to their benefit.

Trying to make slavery sound in any way like it had an up side for the enslaved is incredibly bold. It's also incredibly blind to reality.

Locally, in Fayetteville, the Northwest Arkansas Black Heritage Association is working to ensure Black history isn't forgotten. The group advocated for naming the former Archibald Yell Boulevard after Nelson Hackett instead. Hackett was a slave who in 1841 escaped the Fayetteville man who owned him, setting off a considerable international incident.

The association has also sparked conversations on preserving what remains of neighborhoods or structures associated particularly with the Black population's role in the town's history. An initial plan to have the city acquire properties then give them to the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Black Heritage Association met with legal concerns. It's been tabled indefinitely. Now, the focus is on the possible designation of an area of town as the Historic Black District of Spout Spring Branch.

Globally, the discussion is often about the lingering effects of past empires, through which Europeans controlled much of the "civilized" world and wielded their power to control populations they considered uncivilized or for whom the Europeans believed they were delivering superior examples of governance, civility, trade and religion.

A recipient of the prestigious, recently announced MacArthur "genius grants," E. Tendayi Achiume is a legal scholar recognized for an intriguing, and no doubt controversial, analysis rooted in the lingering effects of colonialism. The long-standing world order embraces sovereignty of nations and their broad right to exclude noncitizens, Achiume says. The sovereignty permits those nations to create only a few exceptions to those exclusions, tightly controlling who crosses their borders.

In her 2019 article "Migration as decolonization," Achiume suggests many Third World economic migrants – people seeking better lives for themselves and families -- should instead have a right to migrate into certain First World nations because their modern day circumstances are largely due to the lasting effects of colonialism and subjugation of people for the sake of the empire.

"I argue that Third World persons are entitled to a form of First World citizenship as a matter of corrective, distributive justice," Achiume writes.

Would I go so far as Achiume, eroding national sovereignty in the name of some kind of restorative justice? It'd be a struggle.

But if you ask me who has a better grasp on history's lingering effects on Black people around the globe, I'd say Achiume has Ron DeSantis beat hands down.

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