Black AF History, by Michael Harriot

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The subtitle of this book is The Un-Whitewashed Story of America as Harriott flips the spotlight, centering the Black and Indigenous experience, and treating White Americans as the supportive spectators. As he puts it in the introduction:

The history I discovered in the middle room wasn’t just an alternative version of American history; it was the story of an entirely different place, wholly incompatible with the whitewashed mythology enshrined in our collective memory. I have never known that place because that America, in reality, does not exist. That story of America is a fantastical, overwrought, and fictive tale. It is a fantasy where Christopher Columbus discovered a land that he never set foot in. … the only difference between the Black AF version of history and the way America’s story is customarily recounted is that whiteness is not the center of the universe around which everything else revolves.

It’s a sobering read at times, especially with the bloody and visceral stories from the time of Reconstruction and the KKK era of lynchings e.g. he describes one atrocity where “The floor grew slick with blood.”

He shares stories of how the White colonists would not have survived without the generosity of the Native Americans, and without the agricultural expertise and hard work of the Black people they kidnapped from Africa. And yet the White men celebrated their self sufficiency and their independence, never acknowledging the people and support they took advantage of to survive and accumulate their wealth, a pattern that continues to this day in part due to laws passed to institutionalize that story into reality. Harriott describes slavery as “intentional: a color-coded, never-ending, legally protected, constitutionally enshrined system of human trafficking that extorted labor, intellectual property, and talent in the most brutal way imaginable.”

One example of the cognitive dissonance that was required to support slavery:

Apparently, in South Carolina, the person who sows, waters, weeds, and harvests a plant can somehow “steal” it from the people who did absolutely nothing to create it. Since enslaved people were governed by property laws, running away to freedom was legally considered an act of theft, despite the ironic fact that the whole slavemaking industry was based on abduction.

This is a pattern that continues to this day; witness the backlash to Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech. Americans erase all the support necessary to enable their success, much like plantation owners took the wealth created by their slaves, and modern billionaires take all the credit and profits from the work done by thousands employed by them. Thanks to intellectual property laws and NDAs, they are even able to prosecute people for the “theft” of their own ideas, although thankfully that’s starting to change.

Another example of how these patterns continue in the present day is that the presidency of Barack Obama was so threatening to many White Americans that the country elected Donald Trump in response as its representative:

He [Trump] made his fortune like America made its fortune: taking land, profiting off financial malfeasance, conning the masses, and refusing to pay Black and brown people for their work.

And that is America. Like its history, this nation is a mirage. Its greatness is a figment of a collective white imagination that envisions a bright, shining star where there is only a dumpster fire. America is a con artist. It is a counterfeit farce of a white country convinced of its own supremacy.

This book will disturb you if you grew up in White America as I did. I don’t know enough to confirm every story Harriott tells, but the overall narrative he tells is quite damning: Americans created a system where they exploited others in the most brutal ways imaginable to build their wealth, while somehow giving themselves all the credit. This is not the history I was taught in school.

Even though he is an engaging and often funny storyteller, I had to put the book down after every chapter to recover a bit, and it took me a couple months to finish reading. But it is an important book, as Harriot is also acting as a cultural anthropologist, sifting through the remains to find the (literal) bones upon which American culture was built. Highly recommended.

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