Friday, 27 April 2018

The coincidence of institutionalised thoughtlessness

We have been watching Ken Burns’ TV series “The West” telling the story of how the west (wagon trains, cowboys and Indians, rawhide and all that) was “won”. Interspersed with stories of individuals’ endeavours to make a new life for themselves is the ongoing saga of how the native Americans were cheated and mistreated all the way along.

Much of this we had read about already but the relentlessness of it all is still overwhelming.

There is the mix of greed and hope in the gold rush. Everyone who dashed off the pan for gold thought they could strike it rich, rather like everyone who buys a lottery ticket imagines they will win millions. Some of those who went were comfortably off before they set off on the great adventure; the adventure was all. One man went, dug and panned, found little, suffered a lot and eventually went back home to the family farm in the east. But until he died he regaled family members with tales of his adventures. Maybe that’s what it was all really about - the spirit of adventure!

There were the Mexicans as well, the ones who had lived forever in places that became part of the United States and who found their way of life disrespected, undermined and marginalised. It was as if everyone had to conform to an ideal of being American!

But it was the series of broken promises to the native Americans, the First Nations, which were the most heartbreaking. They were promised territory over and over again, only to have it stolen because settlers needed homesteads. If such a thing as institutionalised carelessness and thoughtlessness exists, this was it.

Coincidentally I have been reading “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave”. He tells of how slaves did not know their birthdays and his indignation about this: “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.” Even asking about it was considered “improper and impertinent and evidence of a restless spirit”. A restless spirit might be fine in a white man, a sign of ambition and of a sense of adventure, but in a slave it meant that he might become “unmanageable”. Heaven forfend!

Frederick Douglass, when he became a town slave in Baltimore rather than a plantation slave, gave food to poor white children who did not have as much to eat as he did. But he recognised that fundamentally they were more fortunate than he because on e they reache the age of 21 they would be independent. Not he! He had to run away to achieve that.

And in the northern States he was amazed to find that people could be rich without being slave owners - such was the institutionalisation of the slave!

But he did escape and helped others to do so.

And then I came across this article on lynchings, which is very disturbing.

Here in the UK we have all the scandal of the Windrush business and people being told they don’t belong here after all.

 It’s a rather cruel old world!

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