The Importance of Perspective and Learning the History We Don’t Know

Dr. Beverly Tatum

Williston Northampton Convocation Speech
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
September 15, 2017

A long time ago I read a disturbing story that had a powerful effect on me and I want to begin my talk today by telling it to all of you.  Unfortunately I no longer remember where I first read it, but I believe it comes from the Buddhist tradition.  It is a story about a king who wanted to create a large bell that could be heard across the country side, one that would be astonishingly beautiful in tone.  He commissioned the most highly skilled bell maker he could find, and the bell maker worked diligently to produce a wonderful bell.  The first bell he made was good, but not great.  The sound quality just wasn’t what the king was looking for.  A second bell was cast, and still despite the bell maker’s best efforts, it wasn’t good enough for the king.  Finally in frustration, the bell maker told the king that the only way to get the beautiful tone he was looking for would be to sacrifice a young maiden in the casting of the bell.  And so the king ordered his soldiers to find a suitable candidate.  In a nearby village they found a poor woman with a young daughter, and snatched her away from her pleading mother.  She was sacrificed for the bell, and indeed the bell that resulted was both beautiful to see and had an astonishingly pure and lovely tone.  All who heard it marveled at the sound, but the poor mother who knew firsthand its terrible history cried with grief each time the bell rang. There was injustice literally baked into that bell, but those who did not know that history never had to think about that injustice.  They simply enjoyed its sound.

When I first encountered that story, it caused me to think about what metaphorical bells are ringing today whose sound I enjoy, but whose continued ringing is, for someone else, a reminder of terrible injustice.  Your perspective, or point of view, about the value of the bell and its sweet sound is certainly going to be shaped by your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about its history.

Sometimes we prefer not to know such history.  If we knew, what would we do?  What would be our obligation?  Would we stop listening to the bell?  Would we condemn the king and try to overthrow his rule?  What if the king is long gone? Can we just forget about the price that was paid?  Would we demand reparations for the poor mother whose daughter was sacrificed?  Or would we shrug our shoulders and say “I didn’t order that bell.  It’s not my fault.  It’s not my responsibility.”  How you respond to that question, your perspective, is likely to be rooted in your life experience, and may not reflect the life experiences of others.  Whose perspective might be missing?  Whose history don’t you know?

These might seem like theoretical questions, but in fact, they have real implications for what is going on around us today.  If we extend the metaphor of the “beautiful bell” to the United States, we must acknowledge that there is injustice baked into our bell.

Jim Wallis, a well-known pastor and publisher of Sojourners Magazine, writes from his perspective as a white European-American man about this embedded flaw in a book entitled, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  In it he writes,

“The United States has the most racial diversity of any country in the world.  This diversity is essential to our greatness, but it has also given us a history of tension and conflict…Ironically and tragically, American diversity began with acts of violent racial oppression that I am calling America’s “original sin”—the theft of land from Indigenous people who were either killed or removed and the enslavement of millions of Africans who became America’s greatest economic resource—in building a new nation.  The theft of land and the violent exploitation of labor were embedded in America’s origins.”  (Wallis, 2016, p. 9)

The injustice was baked in, and a racial hierarchy created that we still see evidence of today.   All of that is part of our American bell.  And when we hear the bell’s song (the National Anthem) or recite its pledge, some, particularly those at the top of the hierarchy, may hear a beautiful sound while others, particularly those identified with the people at the bottom, feel the pain of past and present injustice.

When I wrote those words originally in the fall of 2016, I was thinking about the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the National Anthem as a silent protest.  He was using his sphere of influence as a sports figure to remind us of the injustice baked into the bell, injustice that still has not been completely purged from the bell’s core, and that is still resonating from the bell today.

A year later, the Kaepernick controversy has not gone away. In fact, it has been added to by the NFL teams refusing to hire him, and others threatening to boycott the NFL because of that.  But also, a year later, we could expand our discussion to include other symbols and what they represent – we could talk about the differing responses to Confederate flags and statues, for example.

What do you hear when you hear the National anthem or recite the pledge of allegiance?  What do you see when you spot a Confederate flag or a statue of Confederate soldiers?

Recently I came across an essay by Tom Ziller, a sports writer who captured two different perspectives – that of Colin Kaepernick and that of another football player, Saints Quarter Back Drew Brees, who criticized Colin for his silent protest.  Ziller writes:

Brees hears the anthem and sees his World War II veteran grandfather and the dozens of soldiers he’s met through his involvement with the USO. Kaepernick hears the anthem and sees Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. These are not mutually exclusive visions. America can be worthy of pride and worthy of disgust. Even World War II provided lessons to this effect: while American soldiers liberated Europe, 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up and incarcerated by our government. America can be worthy of pride and worthy of disgust. The examples, from our slave-owning Founding Fathers to the century of Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation, are endless. [1]

As Ziller points out, both perspectives are valid but I would argue that the first perspective is based on an incomplete history, even of veterans and their World War II experience.  White veterans and veterans of color were not treated the same.  After World War II, the veterans of that war received several major benefits under the GI Bill—providing funding for education, job training, and home loan guarantees, a major factor in the growth of the middle class in America in the 1950s.  Yet, during the same period, thousands of black veterans in both the North and South were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities.  To give you a sense of the degree of discrimination, of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill in New York and Northern New Jersey, less than 100 of them went to support home purchases by veterans of color. (Wallis, 2016).  When we don’t acknowledge this aspect of our history, we fail to acknowledge the pain that was and is still being baked into the bell.

Similarly, people with different life experiences hear different meanings when they hear protestors chant the phrase, “Black Lives Matter” – a rallying cry that began as a hashtag on Twitter in response to the police shootings of unarmed Black men and women.   I gave a talk last summer, and an elderly white gentleman told me during the Q&A why he objected to the phrase.  He felt excluded by it.  When you hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter” does it sound like “only Black Lives Matter” or is it “Black Lives Matter too”?

To me, it is obvious that the phrase highlights the ways that Black lives have been devalued historically and currently, not just because police officers have been able to kill unarmed Black men and women without accountability, but because the health of Black citizens (both children and adults) can be disregarded when water known to be contaminated with lead was allowed to flow from their faucets for months without taking action (meanwhile Flint city offices were being provided bottled water to drink),  and predatory lenders can get away with offering subprime loans to Black and Latino borrowers, even when they have credit scores comparable to white borrowers who are being offered more conventional, less risky loans, just to name a few recent examples.    Such discriminatory behavior can happen for months, in some cases years, without public outcry, because those lives, it seems, are considered less valuable.  But if you don’t know those stories, you don’t understand what those affected are talking about.

Social scientists know that those at the bottom of any hierarchy usually know more about those at the top than those at the top know about those at the bottom.  It’s easy to understand why.  The maid that cleans her employer’s house will know a lot more about the employer’s life than the employer is likely to know about hers.  She sees the inside of that house and every room in it but it is entirely possible that the employer has never been to the maid’s house or visited her neighborhood and may not know much about the maid’s life away from her job.

When we don’t know the stories of those at the bottom of the hierarchy, our knowledge is incomplete, not just because we don’t know the stories of those at the bottom.  It is incomplete because if we don’t know the stories at the bottom, we can’t truly know the stories of those at the top, because the stories are linked.

Consider for example the story of Georgetown University, a very prestigious college, located in Washington, DC.  In a very tangible way, those at the bottom of the hierarchy made it possible for those at the top to be educated at Georgetown. Founded in 1789, it is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in the United States. In 1838, facing financial ruin, the priests in charge of Georgetown paid the school’s debts by selling 272 of the slaves they owned, netting $115,000, what would be $3.3 million in today’s dollars.  Rachel Swarns of the New York Times vividly described what happened in an article she wrote, saying:

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University

More than a dozen universities — including BrownColumbiaHarvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But the 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say…

“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery. (NY Times, April 27, 2016) [2]

We could call Georgetown another beautiful bell – but the injustice of slavery and the sacrifice of 272 pleading human beings is certainly baked in.  How can a bell like that be fixed?  Last year, on September 1, 2016 the president of Georgetown University, Dr. John DeGoia, formally apologized stating, “There is a moral, as well as a practical, imperative that defines this moment—that shapes the responsibility we all share: how do we address now, in this moment, the enduring and persistent legacy of slavery?  I believe the most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time.  Some of the efforts that we began in February 2016—a Department of African American Studies, a new center focused on racial justice, and hiring of new faculty to support this work—are means of engaging this challenge.” [3]

Other steps the university is taking include the renaming of buildings – one to be called Isaac Hall, the first name on the list of those that were sold, as well as giving admissions preference to descendants of the enslaved people the Jesuits owned, as well as build a public memorial to honor their memory.   These actions were among several recommendations made by a Georgetown Committee called the Working Group of Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.

How can we fix this American bell we call the United States?  Certainly, efforts have been made in my lifetime.  I have seen progress.  My father was born in 1926.  He was 90 when he died last year.  He was fortunate to have grown up in a family of educators, and was able to attend college in the 1940s (a time when that was uncommon for an African American).  He earned his undergraduate degree at Howard University (a historically Black college in Washington DC) and then a Masters degree at the University of Iowa and become a college professor, first teaching at Florida A&M in Tallahassee and Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (both also historically Black colleges) before moving to Massachusetts in 1958 where he became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State College (now known as Bridgewater State University).

I was born in 1954 when my father was still teaching art at Florida A&M.  As I mentioned, he earned his Masters Degree at the University of Iowa, and he wanted to get his doctorate in Art Education.  Florida State University, which is also in Tallahassee, had a graduate program in Art Education, and it would have been very convenient to attend since it was in the same city where we lived.  Unfortunately, because of the segregation of universities in Florida in 1954, my father was not allowed to attend Florida State.  But because of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, the state of Florida was legally required to give my father access to graduate education.  The state of Florida met their obligation, not by admitting him to the school across town, but by paying his transportation to Pennsylvania where he enrolled in the Art Education program at Penn State and earned his doctorate there.

Today we see the foolishness of the state of Florida – instead of trying to keep talented people like my dad in the state, their behavior drove them out.  Florida’s loss was Massachusetts’ gain.  My dad had a wonderful 30-year teaching career at Bridgewater State, free of many (though not all) of the constraints of racial discrimination.

Today, I can say that when I applied to graduate school, I did not have the limited choices my father had.  I was not prohibited by any segregationist policies or practices from applying to the schools of my choice.  Neither were my children.  But I will tell you that when my sons became old enough to drive in Northampton, Massachusetts, their dad and I both talked to them about the hazards of being stopped by police and the importance of keeping your hands visible at all times.  Because even well-behaved, good-looking, articulate and Williston-educated young Black men living in Massachusetts could fall victim to the racist assumptions of others, and unconscious bias is dangerous when someone has a gun in their hands.

Yes, in my lifetime, there has been progress.  Martin Luther King Jr. once said, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.  And in my lifetime, I have seen it bend.  But lately it seems that the arc is stuck.

Progress of any kind is rarely linear.  It is often a matter of two steps forward and one step back.  Periods of progressive reform are often met by backlash – as others, perhaps fearful of what is unfamiliar, try to return to an earlier status quo.  There are many examples in history of that pattern.  If we are paying attention, we can see that pattern in motion right now.  In fact, I sometimes feel like we are living in the 21st century version of Reconstruction!  In case you don’t remember, following the end of the Civil War, there was a period of reformation in the South that included the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureaus to help those newly released from bondage.  Blacks were given the right to vote, and some elected to Southern state governments.  Many social reforms, including the establishment of public schools, were instituted during that period.  However, there was also massive white resistance from the former Confederates, which became violent with the rise of the KKK.  As Northern law enforcers eventually withdrew from the South (marking the end of Reconstruction), white supremacists reasserted control and “took the South back” through the institution of Jim Crow laws, and the disenfranchisement of Black voters.  It was during that period that most of today’s Confederate statues were erected, an effort to demonstrate who was in control in the South.

Though as a nation I believe we have moved far beyond that period in our history, I see the logic of legal expert Michelle Alexander’s argument that mass incarceration is a new way to exert racialized social control (what she calls the New Jim Crow).[4]    I watch with alarm the systematic institution of voter ID laws not just in the South, but across the nation, clearly intended to suppress the voting behavior of historically marginalized voters.  It is a tactic rooted in our history.  We should pay attention to it.

We are at an important historical moment with regard to our nation’s legacy of dealing with race.  It is a moment that contains both dangers and opportunities. We can allow the forces leading to greater segregation to drive us further apart as a nation; or we can use our leadership – as active citizens – to make a positive change.  We lived through a political season in which we heard politicians saying things like, “We’re taking America back.”  Back to what?  Back from whom?  What is their definition of a “better” America?  What is yours?

As a psychologist, one thing I know for sure is that leadership matters. Fundamentally, we know that human beings are not that different from other social animals.  Not unlike wolves, we follow the leader.   Yes, we have an innate tendency to think in “us” and “them” categories, but we look to the leader to help us know who the “us” is and who the “them” is.   The leader can define who is in and who is out.  The leader can draw the circle narrowly, or widely.  When the leader draws the circle in an exclusionary way, with the rhetoric of hostility, the sense of threat among the followers is heightened.  When the rhetoric is expansive and inclusionary, the threat is reduced.  It sounds simple, but we know it is not.  It requires courage, and sometimes means we must speak up against strident voices.  But that is what leaders do.  And everyone here—whether student, faculty or staff—has the capacity to be a leader, to influence others whether they be family members, friends, classmates, or colleagues.

The leader has to ask the question, how is the circle being drawn?  Who is inside it? Who is outside it? What can I do to make the circle bigger?  We live in a time when anxiety and fear are rising – and us-them lines are being drawn in a way that does not bode well for the health of our society.  As Martin Luther King once said, we are caught in a “web of mutuality,” and that means we have to know the stories at the bottom of our society as well as at the top.  We need a much wider perspective, seeking out the stories, the histories, we don’t know.  Each of us – everyone here – has the opportunity to broaden our perspective and a learning environment like this one is a good place to start.

Before I became a college president, I taught a course on the psychology of racism for more than 20 years, and as my students learned more about the enduring nature of racism, they often felt overwhelmed and helpless to do anything.  I used to say to them, the same thing I will say to you:  You have more power than you think.  Everyone has a sphere of influence—family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, colleagues in your book club, members of your house of worship – when you think about it, your social network is broad.   Use it!

We are all part of a chain of change agents, men and women—white and of color—who in large and small ways have taken action (not unlike Colin Kaepernick), people who asked the difficult question at the meeting, risked some discomfort, and used their social power and privilege to interrupt the status quo – regardless of its source.  We must not break that chain of courage and commitment if we want to see continued progress—if we want to fix our bell.

Last year while I was working on the new edition of my book, I traveled to Texas, speaking on the campus of Texas A&M.  Something happened there that gave me some hope.  By coincidence, the week before I arrived there had been a racial incident.  A group of Black teenagers from a high school in Houston were touring the campus.  During the tour they were approached by a small group of students who yelled racial slurs at them. “What’s hopeful about that?” you might be asking yourself.  Nothing.  What gave me hope is what happened next.  The student body president, a young white man named Joseph Benigno ’16, issued a statement on YouTube (just 3½ minutes long), but clear, concise and courageous.[5]  Acknowledging that he himself had been silent in the face of racist and sexist remarks, often made behind closed doors, he recognized that his and other’s silence gave permission for the hateful remarks to be made publicly.  “Our silence fosters hate.  Our silence enables the hateful to feel comfortable and welcome…”  He urged his fellow students to take responsibility for making a change.  I was very impressed with his statement—you can watch it yourself on YouTube.  Just type in “the Statement of the Texas A&M Student Body President” and you can find it.  His example of leadership was for me a sign of hope.

Is our society getting better?  It could be.  It’s up to us to make sure it is.

I will end with this advice from President Obama to the Howard University graduating Class of 2016:  “Change isn’t something that happens every four or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go.  Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.”[6]

And, that is what each of us has to do every single day for lasting change to occur—and for ALL of us to hear the sound of a beautiful bell in which we can all take pride.




[4] Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  NY: The New Press.



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