In a blistering Independence Day weekend interview with PBS’s Bill Moyers, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad dissected the contradictions between the American belief in equality and freedom and its actual treatment of its own citizens.
Muhammad, who is the head of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, told Moyers, “History is all around us. … People’s ideas about the past … shape their own sense of identity and shape how they imagine the world should be. … History is the building block of all knowledge in our society, and it is the most important part of the most significant tradition that human beings have, which is story-telling.”
He spoke in particular of the role of the founding fathers in perpetuating slavery, saying “they had a great responsibility for building what would become American democracy, and in that regard they failed miserably.”
“We were never taught,” Moyers commented. “that these men actually created a government, a constitution designed to protect the further acquisition of property for the privileged classes.”
Muhammad agreed, noting that Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” was one of the first to argue on scientific grounds that black people could be treated differently because they were biologically inferior.
He noted, however, that when he was a kid in Chicago, black people celebrated the Fourth of July just like white people, with fireworks and barbecue and with no concern for the historical problems. “That’s one of the other amazing contradictions in Americans,” he explained. “Americans — black, white, Asian-American, Latino-American — want to believe in this experiment, want to participate in this experiment, don’t want to carry the baggage of the past. They don’t want to live it, they don’t want to breathe it — it’s depressing.”
Muhammad also emphasized the position of Native Americans, saying that the immigrant experience of the 19th century “was built on the backs of land owned, in the Indian sense, by many tribes indigenous to this country. … Just starting with the question of what happened to black people is not sufficient to understanding that at the end of the day, the very notion of settlement in this country was about procuring resources for the purposes of wealth accumulation.”
“Why do politicians whitewash history?” Moyers asked.
“Because it helps them get elected,” Muhammad laughed. “Why else to politicians do what they do? … People want to be happy. People want to celebrate. People want to feel a sense of belonging, and so when politicians craft stories that remove the ugly aspects of the past … they are feeding that desire, that sense of belonging, that sense that we are a good people by nature.”
A full transcript of this program is available here.
This video is from Moyers & company, June 29, 2012.