In grade school, we unquestioningly accepted the duty of a teacher erasing the blackboard no matter what material had been chalked. Sometimes, we might have had some concern that we had failed to copy some vital information into our notebooks. Then, it was not a problem because we could rely upon a classmate to fill in the blanks.
Even in this high tech cyber era, we learn that nothing is ever truly, untraceably erased, as clever cyber sleuths can discover and recover digital prints or outlines of material no longer visible. Such trace remnants relate to the term palimpsest. Traditionally, a palimpsest is a piece or scrap of a manuscript or written material from which a prior original impression or inscription may be detected. Palimpsest images are often those residuals on something reused or altered, even including geographical areas where the footprint of prior structures or boundaries lay. Although this phenomenon has generally been applied to physical objects, recent experience tells us that erasures and palimpsests have occurred with respect to historical events as well.
Historical erasures are not necessarily conscious efforts to suppress or avoid painful events of the past. Some, however, are outright fiction and falsehood, such as Holocaust denial. Another example is the propagation of the Lost Cause (LC), a propaganda effort attempting to divert history from factually characterizing the war among the states as caused by slavery.
Historical erasures are not necessarily conscious efforts to suppress or avoid painful events of the past. Some, however, are outright fiction and falsehood, such as Holocaust denial. Another example is the propagation of the Lost Cause (LC), a propaganda effort attempting to divert history from factually characterizing the war among the states as caused by slavery. The LC, until recently, has functioned as a big lie to protect, on one hand, the humiliating recognition of the immorality of slavery and, on the other, a conservation of a mythic fantasy of an idyllic Southern culture. In a way, the LC is little different from the current big lie in our nation’s political life arising from the presidential election of 2020, a devastating defeat at the polls followed by an effort to recall and resurrect a cultish culture.
The United States’ experience with its racial history has produced both erasures and big lies while proponents traffic in obscuring the reality in favor of ignorance. Rick Santorum’s stumble over the ‘nonexistence” of Native American culture on this continent at the time of the invasion of Europeans represents the big lie conservatives seek to advocate about American exceptionalism. (See https://wp.me/p9wDCF-2G3). Truth telling, or to conservatives, disrespectful criticism, is contrary to beliefs. That’s likely true.
America’s exceptionalism, as cultivated by some, conveniently obscures our heritage of slavery and racism that had an origin in 1619. Santorum ignored (or did not know) that the religious colonists enslaved Native Americans and deemed them inferior creatures. Later, colonial successors violated and ignored numbers of treaties made with Native American nations.
America’s exceptionalism, as cultivated by some, conveniently obscures our heritage of slavery and racism that had an origin in 1619. Santorum ignored (or did not know) that the religious colonists enslaved Native Americans and deemed them inferior creatures. We can be certain that he could recite the details of the peaceful overture of Thanksgiving hosted by the god-fearing Puritans.
Later, colonial successors violated and ignored numbers of treaties made with Native American nations. In his way, Santorum was on safe ground in that the more visible evidential existence of Native American culture resides largely in palimpsests and not in school curricula.
It is for this same and similar reasons that there is surprise among our neighbors and leaders when they are reminded of the events in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 100 years ago. Historical traces from 1898 when a mob of crusading whites ousted a biracial political administration in Wilmington, North Carolina, torching the local Black newspaper, increase the discomfort. In 1919, enraged whites killed a number of Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, who were seeking a better return for their labors on local farms. In 1923, a mob of white aggressors led by the Ku Klux Klan destroyed the prosperous Black town of Rosewood, Florida, motivated by an alleged assault on a white woman, echoing the Greenwood motive.
Palimpsests prove themselves to be stubbornly immune from human efforts to erase the underlying reality of history. Advocates of American exceptionalism such as Ted Cruz and Santorum are troubled by such accuracy and vilify attempts (like critical race theory) designed to reveal phases of American history that detract from the ideals and idylls of exceptionalism. In effect, they prefer electoral ignorance in order to amplify their patriotic commitment and loyalty to false gods by deflecting from reality. Such an approach is as damaging, if not more so, than the big lie. As trace upon trace of racist behavior is brought to public attention, the threads of the palimpsest pattern weave into a visible quilt for all to see and appreciate.
That “the truth shall make you free” has never been more crucial to the survival of our values and the civil society we share. We may no longer require notebooks to inform us but we do need our leaders to be forthright, recognizing that they have a duty to honesty, both intellectual and political.