O My America: “1877″ on the High Line
Whenever I go on a brief little vacation, I become very aware of who’s working while I’m playing. If I’m doing the New York stroll on a weekday (art galleries and the High Line, French bistro and lots of walking), I find that nearly every Hispanic person I see, and nearly every Black person I see, is hard at work — often serving the likes of me.
The subject of racism in America thus blossoms in my mind: how people of color have always done far more than their share of the physical work here and earned far less than their share of the real estate; how poverty, prison, and skin color have always gone hand-in-hand here, yet white people — even including Jews, who ought to be ashamed of themselves (“For you were slaves in Egypt!”) — don’t really think anyone or anything’s at fault except poor people’s own pathologies.
Such unvacationish thoughts! I blame them on the book that I’ve been carrying from bench to bench and bistro to bistro: 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently, a powerful and well-written history by Michael A. Bellesiles.
The book begins with the “Panic of 1873,” a deep economic depression that came about mostly thanks to credit over-extension (especially to railroads) and financial hanky-panky. It took down five thousand businesses, half a million railroad jobs, and more than half of the country’s industrial furnaces, and made one out of every five New Yorkers homeless.Next, the book talks about the 1876 presidential election, which was broadly polluted by the violent suppression of the Black vote in the South. The Republicans in Washington essentially gave a free pass to Southern Democrats — the defeated Confederate slaveholders — to take over their state governments by terrorizing and murdering African-Americans (and their white supporters), in exchange for Republican retention of the White House (President Rutherford B. Hayes). “Southern whites accepted union,” writes Bellesiles, “and Northern whites accepted racism.”
This outright betrayal of the freed slaves and the democratic system was followed by the final subjugation of the Sioux and Nez Perce peoples and the deliberate extermination of their communal wealth, the buffalo herds. This was followed — I didn’t know! — by a near-war between Texas and Mexico, in the area of El Paso and to the south, with some white Texas big-shot acting as ganef and wealth-grabber. Then came the racist attacks on Chinese laborers in California and legislation that cut off Chinese immigration . . .
All of this took place within two years or less. It was the hey-day of white supremacism.
Yesterday I did a “staycation” at home with my sweet wife, and 1877 remained in my shoulder bag, unread. Last night, I was teaching her a bass line for the great Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo baby, baby . . .”
“I’m just about at the end of my rope . . . But I can’t stop now . . . I can’t give up hope . . . ”
The piece is a love song, not at all political, yet even while I was calling out those bass patterns, I found myself thinking about Barack “I can’t give up hope” Obama, and the coulda- woulda-shoulda of his presidency.
“I did you wrong . . . my heart went out to play . . . but in the game I lost you . . . what a price to pay!”
I thought about all the Black culture that I love, love, love, and all of the racist history that hurts, hurts, hurts — and all of a sudden Obama’s reelection seemed hugely important, and my vacation was over.