Words matter.

They can mean the difference between life and death.

I love words. I’ve been working as a journalist since 1986 and still read four newspapers. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Jewish News still arrive on our doorstep.

Yes, the real, live, print editions. I know, that’s a lot of trees to sacrifice. Truth is worth it.

But are we getting the truth?

When it comes to Black Americans, we’re getting it late, but we’re finally getting it.

On July 11, The New York Times ran a full page editorial by Brent Staples headlined, “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America.”

He wrote: “Newspapers that championed white supremacy throughout the pre-civil rights South paved the way for lynching by declaring African Americans non-persons.”

“They embraced the language once used at slave auctions by denying Black citizens the courtesy titles of Mr. and Mrs., and referring to them in news stories as ‘the negro,’ ‘the negress,’ or ‘the (obscenity)’”

These were, and are, the papers of record, the writers of history.

“They depicted Black men as congenital rapists, setting the stage for them to be hanged, shot or burned alive in public squares all over the former Confederacy.” And they were, all over the South.

The article says newspapers incited “hellish episodes of violence during which white mobs murdered at will while sometimes destroying entire Black communities.”

It names names:

The Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama “acknowledges being complicit in racial terrorism.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky “confessed that it had ‘neglected’ to cover the civil rights movement.”

The Orlando Sentinel repented for printing a front-page editorial and cartoon with four empty electric chairs seeking the deaths of four Black defendants, the victims of a wrongful prosecution attempt.

The Los Angeles Times regretted being “deeply rooted in white supremacy.”

The Yankee papers weren’t much better. Headlines used phrases like “Negro ruffian,” “colored cannibal” and “African Annie.” “By portraying Black people as less than human, the white popular press justified the reign of terror that the South deployed,” Staples wrote.

The white press pushed for the overthrow of the interracial government of Wilmington, N.C. After a white mob burned down the Black newspaper in Wilmington, vigilantes ran loose killing unarmed African Americans. Back then, The New York Times erred by calling the overthrow necessary to restore “law and order.”

The day after I read that editorial, my daughter shared some posts she read by a writer who identifies himself online as “5’7 Black Male” @absurdistwords.

He wrote: “When we cannot come to terms with and acknowledge the full enormity of our actions, not only can we never be accountable to those we have harmed, but we make their pain and anger seem illegitimate and arbitrary and without cause or validity.”

He posted this glossary of Clear Language on Slavery.

Slaves = Hostages

Slave Owners = Human Traffickers

Plantations = Death Camps

Mistresses = Rape Victims

Discipline = Torture/Murder

Overseers = Torturers

Trading = Kidnapping

Profit = Theft

Middle Passage = Genocide

It really changes the way we tell the story of slavery, doesn’t it? I grew up learning that slavery was an economic system the South depended on, not a horrendous system of torture and human trafficking that lasted from 1619 to 1865.

He wrote, “America treats slavery like an oopsie rather than a centuries-long campaign of nightmarish, brutal terrorism. America sees the systemic and sadistic destruction of Black families as an etiquette violation. Which is why it will excuse slave owners so readily.”

Sometimes kidnapping and enslaving humans isn’t even considered an “oopsie.” A few years ago when I was in Amsterdam, I took a canal boat ride through the city. A recording came on to narrate “history” as we flowed along. The narrator listed all the goods Amsterdam had traded in, listing “slaves” right up there with “spices” in a breezy, casual tone. There was no apology, no reckoning, no shame.

I cringed.

We all have so much to learn about how to tell the story of Black Americans. There is a lot of debate going on about what we will teach about race and racism in our schools.

For far too long, we’ve been told the story of Black Americans from a “white-washed” perspective.

It’s time to open ourselves to a new telling, one that gets closer to the truth, no matter how much it hurts.


Connect with Regina Brett on Facebook at ReginaBrettFans.

Disclaimer

The Cleveland Jewish News does not make endorsements of political candidates and/or political or other ballot issues on any level. Letters, commentaries, opinions, advertisements and online posts appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News, on cjn.org or our social media pages do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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