Three land deeds hang on the wall In the hallway-like space outside my kitchen. They are deeds for land in Illinois, granted to a man named Randall Davis by presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, probably as payment for his service in the War of 1812. There are, of course, questions about whether the United States government had the right to grant that land. According to the government, the Sauk and Meskwaki people had ceded the land to the United States in the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804. According to some of the Sauk, Meskwaki, and Kickapoo people, the indigenous representatives who agreed to that treaty was not authorized to do so. The Black Hawk War was fought in 1832. And the United States’ victory in that war ended armed resistance to the expansion of the United States in the Old Northwest.
Randall Davis is a relative of mine. I don’t know exactly what kind of relative he is, but he is one. And given how much of my (relatively) near family—parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on—hail from Illinois, I have almost certainly benefitted, in some way, from the fact that this land was taken from indigenous peoples and given to him. Even though I only know about him from those land deeds, and I only know about the history that I just gave you from Wikipedia articles.
Which is all a way of saying something simple. It would be ridiculous to blame me for the fact that that land was (probably illegitimately) taken from some people and given to my family. But it is still true that the land was taken from some people and given to my family. And it is also still true that I benefit from being able to claim the history of the people who the land was given to instead of the history of the people who the land was taken from.
And I’m telling you this because I keep seeing people saying something like, “Everyone knows that it would be RIDICULOUS to blame this Japanese-American TODDLER for PEARL HARBOR! And it’s just as ridiculous to blame anyone alive today for slavery, stolen land in the 1800’s, or any other crime from hundreds of years ago! It’s just plain stupid to blame the innocent!”
And that’s not wrong. It’s just missing the point. By a lot.
First, it’s important to note that things like slavery and stealing land did not end hundreds of years ago. This is not ancient history. Slavery did not end in the United States until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 (a mere 155 years ago). The last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade died in 1940 (80 years ago). The last enslaved person to remember life in slavery died in 1951 (69 years ago). And the last person to be born into slavery died in 1972 (48 years ago). And, of course, it’s important to note that slavery is, in fact, still perfectly legal in the United States as long as the enslaved person is serving a sentence for a crime.
And we are still taking land from indigenous peoples.
Second, the struggles of Black and indigenous people don’t begin and end with slavery or land. People who look like me have practiced a variety of forms of racial discrimination—both formal and informal—in this country. Those include things like slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow. They also include redlining, health care discrimination, mass incarceration (and the whole criminal justice system), good old-fashioned bigotry, and so on. Racism is not something that ended ‘hundreds’ of years ago, or dozens of years ago, or last week. It is present and ongoing.
But third, and most importantly for my purposes here, no one is blaming anyone alive today for the things that our ancestors did. No one is blaming me for the fact that land was taken (again, probably illegitimately) from some people and given to my family. And no one is blaming me for the fact that my ancestors—including the first of my family to set foot on the land that would become the United States—owned slaves. People are simply asking people like me to do two basic things:
First—and I realize I’m nesting lists here—to recognize that we have been helped by being able to claim the history of the people who owned slaves and took land; that other people have been hurt by having to claim the history of the people who were owned as slaves and whose land was taken; and that those patterns of benefit and harm continue to operate today, even if, in some ways, they operate differently than they did in the past.
Second, to participate in restructuring our society in a way that undoes that harm and realized the best ideals of the American project.
None of that is blame. It is simply a request that white people like me acknowledge a truth that this country has worked hard to hide from us: that this is not a nation with liberty and justice for all… but that it could be.