This is the first part of an unpublished essay on African American history in St. Louis that I wrote in the late 1990s. The second and third parts will be published on The Write Fox Blog in coming weeks.
In the spring of 1997, a year into my editorship of Gateway Heritage magazine, I devoted an entire issue to St. Louis’s African American experience.
Reaction to the magazine’s “African American issue” was greater than any Gateway Heritage had received before. Several local newspapers ran features on the issue and its contents, and radio programs that hadn’t acknowledged the magazine’s existence before were eager to speak with me, individual authors of articles, and even the president of the Missouri Historical Society.
Meanwhile, a dozen or so letters and phone calls came into the historical society’s Department of Publications, almost all of them positive. The issue seemed to have struck a chord with the magazine’s readers. They praised the issue as “revealing and important,” “absolutely intriguing,” and “not only informative but also creative.” One reader paid the highest possible compliment a magazine can hope to achieve: “This was the first time that I read every article in an issue of this quarterly. . . . I began on page one and worked myself through to page sixty-four.”
Of course, not everyone was pleased with the issue, but only one reader went on record with his views.
“I am quite hesitant about writing this note,” he wrote, “mainly because I feel my motives will be misconstrued. However, I think it important. . . . Having just finished the spring 1997 issue of Gateway Heritage, I am shocked that all the articles relate to black history.”
The reader continued, “It’s not even that I dislike the articles, it’s simply that I am bored to death with black history and this was a bit much. Gateway Heritage is my primary connection to the Missouri Historical Society and I have really enjoyed articles on the Plains Indians and the military, but issues such as this last one are simply not interesting to me. I would appreciate articles pertaining to my heritage. . . . Please—a little balance in the future.”
The more I thought about this letter, the more I realized that it suggests not just a split between “black history” and “white history,” but the effects of that split. We are rarely “bored to death” by that which we perceive as being relevant to our lives and livelihoods. The stock market, for example, is a boring topic for those who don’t have money invested in it; as soon as an investment is made, however, its world of formerly arcane symbols and theories becomes very interesting, very quickly.
History works in a similar way. If we feel we have nothing invested in a person’s story, studying that story can become tedious, monotonous, boring. This is why history that only focuses on the accomplishments of “heroes,” be they George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr., can become boring as well—lists of dates and achievements with no sense of real lives lived.
When I first started learning about St. Louis’s African American history, I encountered the same names over and over again: Dred Scott, Shelley v. Kraemer, Chuck Berry, Annie Turnboe Pope Malone, Homer G. Phillips, Miles Davis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I could soon rattle off such a list easily, giving the illusion that I knew something about the black experience in St. Louis.
Now that I have been studying St. Louis’s complex history more fully, my range of knowledge has expanded, and with it my ability to talk a good game about its black history. I know, for example, that it was possible for African American women in St. Louis to attain money and status in the eighteenth century. I know that the city’s black community is not a monolithic entity, but a complex network of invisible borders and unspoken boundaries—just like any other community. I know that many of the actions I take for granted, from buying property to going to movies, still represent a minefield of sideways glances, under-the-breath utterances, and outright rudeness for members of the black community. I know all of this, yet I can’t claim to understand it.
For several years, I had also worked as an English instructor at a large, suburban community college. There, I often encountered people bored with other people’s stories. Students would say they were tired of hearing about the problems of being black, or Native American, or Asian, or poor, or female, or male, or homeless.
Their “boredom” revealed to me not only an inability to see connections between these stories and their own, but also a conviction that America is truly a land of opportunity, where there is a direct correlation between effort applied (or not) and reward earned (or not). In their eyes, people are poor because they deserve to be poor, they are rich because they deserve to rich, and the dispossessed or disinherited should just roll up their sleeves and “get a job” rather than “whine” about their problems in essays written for college students.
Many people on the short list of African American historical figures above are the first (and often only) figures taught in schools because they fit neatly into this formula of success. Miles Davis, for example, gave up a comfortable middle-class life in East St. Louis (his father was a dentist) for jazz greatness because he was willing to lay it all on the line and head to New York. Jackie Joyner-Kersee gave all she had to her sport, and rich rewards have been the result. And though Dred Scott bucked the system by standing up for African Americans’ rights, he did it in the “right” way—through the court system, not through protests, sit-ins, or other rebellious acts.
However, many African American St. Louisans succeeded as well, becoming part of a stable black middle class in the mid-twentieth century. Their stories are just now being told. But many African Americans from their generation did not make it at all–their stories need to be told, too. And while many white middle-class St. Louisans today started out very poor a generation or two ago as well, it is impossible to deny that there is something unique about the black experience; understanding that uniqueness requires going back to the city’s founding, almost two hundred years ago.