Dr. Elaine Weintraub is a storyteller and historian who specialized in African American history. She is also an author and co-founder of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail. She talks to us about the Black Lives Matter Protests seen from both historical and contemporary perspectives.
As a historian, what are the commonalities you see between the current protests and the civil rights movement of the 1960s?
I see unfinished business. There were promises reneged on at the end of the Civil War and by the 1960s, racist oppression had been normalized and became the structure of society. In the south, that was upheld by violence and violation and abuse of the legal system; in the north, it was more low key in the sense that it was enforced through redlining inadequate schooling and absence from any structure of power.
While the emancipation proclamation abolished slavery in theory, there are also many loopholes and situations of injustice that continued since then. Could you elaborate on this?
The Civil War and the Emancipation proclamation abolished the name “slavery”, but the fact that Reconstruction only ever had strong adherents from Massachusetts and very small parts of the north meant that it was totally abandoned. Within a few years of the war, the south was allowed to institute the Black Codes. The Klan was formed, the vote denied and brutality became the norm toward people of color in the south where the largest populations of Black people were. It was legal to deny the vote to rape and murder with impunity with the protection of the law. The period after the Civil War to the 1960s was incredibly brutal toward African Americans.
Many countries in the world seem to be living an “insular moment” where “the fear of others” prevails along with the existence of societal tensions. Why this? And do you think that this moment is rather exceptional or are there chances that it lasts?
I suppose I think like a history teacher and I see true education as key. In my 25-year career, I never saw truly inclusive history being taught, and any references made to African American experience were generally more White History in that it was the white definition of the black experience. For example, is the history of enslavement truly not a history of how White people gained tremendous assets through the brutalizations of Black people? I hope this moment does stimulate thought. I know that it will make some white peoples very angry and if we are lucky, they may look into their hearts and minds and ask why is thus making me so angry? What do I fear? Why do I feel that my color defines what team I am in and that I must cheer for my team and demean black people’s legitimate struggles because that makes me a patriot?
Do you believe that structural change will come out of the current Black Lives Matter protests, both in the USA and globally speaking?
I do think so or at least I hope very strongly that this is a pivotal moment. Once you know something, you can’t go back and pretend you don’t know it. I was recently in Ireland where there is a long history of blowing up English monuments. I think there is an understanding that those monuments and statues are a statement of power. They are not history. They are weaponized against the oppressed who must walk by them every day feeling aware of that power and having no stake in what is celebrated and how it is celebrated. I think there will be kickback, but I also think that for many people, awareness has begun. We don’t have to identify with our so called heroes if they are oppressors. We can reach some consensus.
You have recently been awarded for your work surrounding the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. Could you tell us more about your work in this specific field?
I began my work on African American history back in 1998. I am the co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail. I was inspired to begin that work because it was immediately apparent to me that African American students did not receive their history. Nor did they receive affirmation of who they were in the day to day life of the school. What I know is history and it seemed to me that creating the Trail with its strong links to education would involve all students Black and White in an understanding not only of the history of trauma but also of triumph. And all would learn from the equal weight given to that history. Over the years, it has developed 30 sites and 31 is coming up this August provided educational programs for colleges and schools from Massachusetts and other states and here in the Vineyard. We maintain high visibility for the Trail and have a very busy tour program each summer that financed most of our operation. We give scholarships sponsor competitions. Our mission is to uncover and record previously ignored history and ensure that it will not be lost or ignored again.
This interview has been conducted by Monica Carroll.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: Dr. Elaine Weintraub (2020), “Dr. Elaine Weintraub on Black Lives Matter Protests”, Observatory on contemporary crises, June 30, 2020, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/dr-elaine-weintraub-on-the-black-lives-matter-protests/
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