A timely reflection on American racial relations where everything isn’t so black-and-white
History is written by the winners. Nowhere does this saying apply more accurately than in racial relations. The history taught in school is not just wrong but whitewashed and watered down. Information is regulated to appear as though all conflict has been eradicated, and the role of other races, such as African Americans, in United States history is downplayed or erased entirely. Whether done through malice or in shame, it has occurred since the beginning of the United States and still occurs to this day.
In Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid, Eugene DeFriest Bétit presents a comprehensive study of the treatment of African Americans, from their arrival in Virginia in 1619 to modern-day. He covers the failure of Reconstruction to help African Americans, Jim Crow, African American contributions to World Wars I and II, the civil rights movement, white supremacy, Confederate statuary, and more. Bétit even discusses Hitler’s admiration of Jim Crow and the United States’ lack of reprimanding haters versus other countries. His study culminates in a damning ultimatum for the white people of the United States: reject haters, punish them for their lawlessness, and accept all regardless of their racial background or national origin, or lose our future as a democracy.
Eugene DeFriest Bétit’s Collective Amnesia does not pull any punches in its exposé of the United States’ untoward treatment of blacks since the Colonial Era. With a meticulously researched, unquestionable collection of resources, Bétit discusses the raw truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly—rather than the popular myth often found in the classroom. While an unfortunate amount of this history falls under “bad” and “ugly,” such as how whites in the American South continued to suppress blacks after the Civil War, Bétit also tells the reader about the “good” that blacks have done for this country that has been swept under the rug, such as the blacks’ significant contributions to both World Wars. More importantly, though, Bétit limits this information to strictly the historical facts in a textbook manner. He compares the American past to that of other countries, showing how they have progressed where we have stalled and how we have influenced one of the ideologies we claim to abhor the most: Nazism. He ties our past to our present and makes us remember to think about how it will affect how future, returning to the age-old saying “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
While a historical and socio-politically charged work, this book does not drag nor is the language hard to read. Bétit uses simple yet impassioned language so that this work goes by relatively quickly despite being around five hundred pages long (including references, footnotes, and appendices). The use of numerous charts, maps, tables, and photographs also helps to pace the text and make the book not seem as long while also providing the reader with useful information. However, one must keep in mind that, by the very nature of this book, the content, including the visual aids, will be considered a sensitive matter to some and politically charged to many, if not all. Still, that is no reason not to read the book. If anything, it means that readers of all backgrounds and beliefs should read it. Those with similar socio-political views as the author will find helpful information to further themselves, and those with opposing views will find information that can either open their minds or, at the very least, start a conversation with more newly acquired information at hand. For those readers who are more sensitive to these matters, nothing too graphic is explicitly discussed, although the subject is never an easy one to cover, so caution is necessary.
Bétit has undertaken a grand task with writing this book and pulled it off very well. Nevertheless, nothing is perfect. Parts throughout the preface, first chapter, and conclusion are somewhat repetitive. The endnotes after each chapter, while it made sense for organizational purposes, disrupts the overall flow of the work and got annoying after a while, to the point that they might have been better at the very end of the book. The most jolting part, though, is that Bétit seems to downplay the racism experienced by Asians, Middle Easterners, and Latinx individuals, particularly Asians, in the first chapter in an attempt to make a point about the racism experienced by blacks in the United States, saying that the second class citizenship applied to African Americans and Native Americans is “applied to a lesser degree to other ‘people of color’ – Chinese, other Asians. Middle Easterners and Latinos.” The implication seems to be that because the kind of racism experienced by these groups is different from that experienced by African Americans and Native Americans, it must be lesser, and that view would be off-putting for readers of those races/ethnicities.
Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid is a deep, thorough study not only of the United States’ history with the mistreatment and suppression of blacks but also how this history has affected other countries and will continue to affect the United States if we continue to refuse to learn from our mistakes. It is not a one-and-done read nor should you read it all in one sitting. Rather, you should go through it in multiple sittings, digesting it slowly even with the easy-to-read writing. That way, you can absorb the information and analyze it completely, perhaps discuss it with another reader, and spread the awareness. Even if you think that you have learned everything that you need to about racial relationships in the United States, give it a read—you’ll be surprised at all the things you never knew you never knew.