Can We Handle the Truth?
America's selective memory and massacres long since forgotten
I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on the Boston Massacre. I said I would speak, but only if I could also speak about other massacres in American history.
The Boston Massacre, which took place on March 5, 1770, when British troops killed five colonists, is a much-remembered--indeed, overremembered--event. Even the word massacre is a bit of an exaggeration; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says the word denotes 'wholesale slaughter.'
Still, there is no denying the ugliness of a militia firing into a crowd, using as its rationale the traditional claim of trigger-happy police--that the crowd was 'unruly' (as it undoubtedly was). John Adams, who was a defense lawyer for the nine accused British soldiers and secured acquittals for seven of them, described the crowd as 'a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattos, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs.'
Adams could hardly have expressed more clearly the fact that the race and class of the victims made their lives less precious. This was one of many instances in which the Founding Fathers registered their desire to keep revolutionary fervor under the control of the more prosperous classes.
Ten thousand Bostonians (out of a total population of 16,000) marched in the funeral procession for the massacre victims. And the British, hoping not to provoke more anger, pulled their troops out of Boston. Undoubtedly, the incident helped build sentiment for independence.
Still, I wanted to discuss other massacres because concentrating attention on the Boston Massacre would be a painless exercise in patriotic fervor. There is no surer way to obscure the deep divisions of race and class in American history than by uniting us in support of the American Revolution and all its symbols-like Paul Revere's stark etching of the soldiers shooting into the crowd.
I suggested to the symposium audience that there were other massacres, forgotten or dimly remembered, that deserved to be recalled. These ignored episodes can tell us much about racial hysteria and class struggle, about shameful moments in our continental and overseas expansion, so that we can see ourselves more clearly and honestly.
Why, for instance, was there not a symposium on what we might call the Taino Massacre, in which Columbus and his fellow conquistadors annihilated the native population of Hispaniola, the island that is now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic? Before the conquistadors arrived, there were several million people living on the island. By 1550, perhaps only 50,000 were left.
Why not organize a public forum on the Pequot Massacre of 1636, when our Puritan ancestors, in an expedition led by Captain John Mason, set fire to a village of Pequot Indians on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound? Here's how William Bradford, an early settler, described the attack in his History of Plymouth Plantation:
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