By Jayashree Prasad-Sinha PhD
I have called the United States my home for almost a quarter of a century. I am a U.S. citizen, working and living here full time with my family. I was born and raised in India but now live in Texas.
Like most Americans, I get my news from mainstream media. For someone not born and raised here, it is one avenue to becoming aware about the important milestones or events of a nation–or what the nation chooses to celebrate and remember.
Until President Joe Biden signed an executive order recently that made Juneteenth a paid federal holiday, I had barely heard of the day or the history behind it. It appears that the majority of Americans, or 60%, reported they knew “nothing at all” or “only a little bit” about Juneteenth, according to one recent poll.
For myself, any reference to Juneteenth was mostly absent from my media consumption, unlike references to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and several other national days of celebration or remembrance. Major historic events such as Greenwood, Tulsa Race Massacre or the Juneteenth were not prominent in national news.
I learned about the history of indigenous people of America through my advocacy group,The Climate Reality Project.
The Climate Leadership training was formerly in person where people from different communities shared their stories with the participants. After the pandemic started in 2020, all trainings and seminars are conducted virtually.
This training gave climate leaders a background of the reasons for the advocacy for climate justice. That it is also environmental and racial justice.
“As an organization fighting for climate and environmental justice, we have a responsibility to speak out against systemic racism and work with our partners to help dismantle systems of White supremacy that perpetuate violence and harm against BIPOC communities,” according to a recent project blog. The organization also acknowledges the land of the native Americans where we now live.
I wonder what else do I not know about the history of the US.
I keep myself informed as much as is possible, not only because I love to know about things and places, but keeping myself up to date has been a part of my training as a geneticist. I know the importance of being up to date with current research in the field I worked in. All researchers do this; they read a wide variety of peer-reviewed articles to remain relevant, informed and up to date in the field.
But I also can see the gaps in my own education in India.
Growing up in India in late1950s and 1960s, I did not know much of the colonial past except in broad generalizations. India won its freedom from the British in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were very often mentioned but there were many prominent and important freedom fighters either left out or not given prominence. At that time, this part of history was not taught in our schools in India.
India’s colonial past is not taught to British school students. Generations of Britishers have grown up celebrating their glory of the “British Raj” but know nothing about the consequences to the colonies and people.
I came to learn about the Jallianwalla Bag massacre from my family or through reading books.
I learned that the 1943 famine of Bengal, India where millions died was a man-made one and a result of Britain’s policies. So much suffering and harm was caused for generations of Indians, then these facts were ignored in subsequent years and eventually almost forgotten by those who caused it.
Recent televisions series in the U.K. have shown nostalgic portrayals of British Raj (colonialism) in a romanticized past but have not shown the brutal realities.
It is true, that the freedom of the press in U.S., U.K., India and other countries is instrumental in bringing this reckoning with history to the front. Still, those who were oppressed raised their voices against these injustices throughout history. Still not everyone had access to or was taught the difficult histories.
But now it is up to me to educate myself on true U.S. history.
I had not heard of author and activist James Baldwin while living in India. Nor did I learn of Baldwin’s impact in the U.S. as my child was going through the education system here. I read the books that my child read in middle school and high school. I wanted to learn more and deeper about the country I had adopted. None of the texts mentioned Juneteenth or Greenwood, Tulsa events or men and women who raised their voices for racial equality.
I recently learned about James Baldwin after watching a short video of a section of the ABC news magazine 20/20 interview of him in 1979, which was never aired. It was shared on Twitter.
I am learning about the details of the nature of slavery and it’s reflection in the current complicated society.
“Juneteenth is an important reminder that freedom has not always been actualized simply because laws have been passed in the United States,” Eddie Cole, an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Education and Information Studies, recently told the UCLA magazine. “Juneteenth is a reminder of promises made and promises broken, and it’s important for students to learn the full, complex truth about the United States as ‘the land of the free.’”
It is not because people did not raise their voices against injustice throughout history that many are unaware. It is because the push to silence these voices has been victorious. It is a common saying that history is written by the “victorious,” those who present sanitized and “feel good” accounts of themselves as humane and sensitive compared to the colonized or enslaved populations.
In several US states, a bill has been recently signed into law to restrict teaching of critical race theory. Last year’s protests following the murder of George Floyd has shown that a problem exists. Unless these issues are addressed in a transparent and just way there will be no healing of the past wounds.
All people deserve to know their pasts, their true histories—whether it is about their native country or their adopted home.
This can happen when the truth is faced together. It is necessary to confront the real past, however unpalatable it may seem to some. Face it, learn from it, accept then move forward together as one nation.
Do not blame those of us for not knowing our history. Correct the erasures of the past together, make it transparent and available through the voices of the past that must once again tell the truth louder than ever.
Jayashree Prasad-Sinha, PhD, is a Geneticist, a Fellow of The Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project