“I think one of the stumbling blocks is that the nature of the black experience in this [country], does indicate something about the total American history which frightens Americans,” declared writer and critic James Baldwin in reply the question posed in a 1968 congressional hearing in lower Manhattan as whether or not the U.S. government should fund a Museum of Negro History and Culture in Washington D.C. A fierce and focused student of America’s two original sins—genocide and slavery—Baldwin coolly reminded his interlocutors that this pair of difficult truths “contradicted the myth of American history,” myths that had been enshrined in the architecture of the nation’s capital where this new museum was to be erected.
It would be almost a half century before a museum of black history would open on the National Mall. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by architects David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, and J. Max Bond (who was a chair here at Columbia) opened its doors four months ago in September. On Monday, a national holiday celebrating the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., then president-elect Donald Trump abruptly canceled a tour of the new museum. Not surprising, it would seem this president has little interest in American history, except in digestible sound-bytes adaptable for late night twitter shaming. It might have served him well to have learn the complex and difficult history of the nation he’s about the lead. In the expansive history galleries some seventy feet below ground of the new museum, he would have learned about the geographic breadth and the deadly wake of the African slave trade. He would have encountered a bronze likeness of the author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, holding one of his prized books—Palladio perhaps—that would become the foundation for the Library of Congress. But alas this president is shamelessly proud he doesn’t (or perhaps can’t) read. President Trump might have noticed that the noble statue of Jefferson was posed in front of a tall brick wall, one similar to those found at his Virginia plantation Monticello and at the University of Virginia, both designed by the nation’s first architect. If he were perceptive, President Trump also might have noticed that each brick bore the name of one of the 600 slaves that Jefferson owned over his lifetime—enslaved workers who labored not only to build what are now UNESCO Heritage monument sites toured by millions, but who lived and died to maintain Thomas Jefferson and his family’s lives in a manner of wealth befitting their social status. Yes, President Trump there is something about America’s truths, its total history, that may have frightened you.
To put this in an historical context, the wealth of the United States was built through the genocidal expropriation of land from indigenous people by waves of European colonists. On that land, now property, the planter elites sowed vast acreages of rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. With the aid of the burgeoning merchant class they shipped these raw materials back to England, France, and Spain to be turned into manufactured goods for a healthy profit that became the back bone of the robust economy [wealth accrued from the slave trade funded the creation of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia among them.] As both land holdings and commerce increased, wealthy planters and merchants needed more stable pools of labor than indentured Europeans, so they legally enslaved men, women and children from the coasts of Africa who could provide a workforce—ruthlessly disciplined through violence.
As the nation’s first secretary of State under George Washington, Thomas Jefferson helped coordinate the construction of Washington D.C. The neo-classical monuments to democracy, liberty, and equality designed by architects William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch possess their own hidden histories. When skilled craftsmen and unskilled white laborers could not be contracted either locally or from Europe, for example, the city’s commissioners paid slave-owners for slave labor to dredge, for example, the Potomac and build a suitable port to facilitate the decades long construction process. Surveyor Pierre L’Enfant directed teams of enslaved workers to clear roads and open plots to sell at auction. Teams of enslaved workers built the White House, a fact that mentioned by former First Lady Michelle Obama in her rousing speech at the recent Democratic National Convention, a truth that was greeted with disbelief by the American public and refutations by newscasters in the right-wing media-sphere. Elsewhere in the Capital City, teams of enslaved workers labored for years to erect the backdrop of today’s presidential inauguration—the U.S. Capital. Yes, there is something about the truth of America, its total history that may frighten many.
Eight years ago, on a blisteringly Tuesday morning, I stood bundled shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Americans on the frozen tundra that was the National Mall. We had gathered to hear the inaugural address of President Barack Obama. As he took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States there was a collective and electric sense of optimism ignited by the election of the first African-American president. We had hope. That morning, to many in the crowd—young and old—President Obama represented the promise of America that perhaps “we do hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (and women) are created equal.” Not one to gush patriotic, at that moment I was proud to be an American. And why not my family had called this country home since the 18th century. I am an American whose mix of African and European heritage echoed that of the incoming President. But because my family roots in this nation are much deeper his, my one quarter European heritage is not the outcome of an interracial marriage that had birthed Obama. Rather, as it is for many African Americans, my heritage was the legacy of white slave owners raping black women to reproduce property and to expand wealth. That is the violent truth about America, its total history that some may find frightening.
In my seminar on Wednesday, my students and I read Chapter 11 from Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended. It instructively lays out his theory of discipline and bio-politics, that work in concert as technologies of power to form the modern state apparatus. In his targeted parsing of historical processes, Foucault argues that the modern state—born in the eighteenth century through the genocide of colonization—rages an internal war on its people. The modern State exerts its techniques of power, the disciplinary and the bio-political, to divide by racial difference. For Foucault, the State regulates by race to introduce “a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die,” or to put in more contemporary terms—whose lives matter and whose lives don’t. These mechanisms of power fundamental to the Racial State of America were manipulated aplomb by Trump and his minions to stir up a dark storm of racial animus (not to mention misogyny, homophobia, Anti-semitism, Islamaphobia), a toxic tide of racism that many believed to have receded after the fierce and deadly civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
We can count the ways that Donald Trump’s ascendance represents the truth about America, “the total American history,” that Baldwin pinpointed, “which frightens Americans.” But we as stewards and visionaries of the built environment, in the work that we do—I hope—represent the promise of America and certainly not the gilded “great America” that the developer-in-chief has deceptively peddled on the campaign trail. In the academy, we must be undisciplined. Only in this way can we exert the epistemic violence necessary to overturn forms of oppression embedded in the western onto-epistemological condition. As citizens, we must be unruly. We must see the nation and the world in all of its contradictions and failures. We must know our histories and interrogate rigorously our present conditions, so as not to cloud our vision but to reckon with the world that as is, so that we can imagine a future rich with possibilities and full of promise for all.