The below is the text of a statement I gave at the closing roundtable of the 2021 Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend, "Bearing Witness from Fresno's Mason-Dixon Line." I'm grateful to Melinda Pitarre and Jim Grant for giving me the chance to be part of this important conversation about racism & its legacies in my hometown, and was deeply honored to have my essay set as a text for the group to consider.
The below comments follow up on the short talk I gave at the February 15th opening session, "Remapping White Childhood: Fresno Redlining and the Problem of Personal History." That talk is archived here (at around 37:00); my PowerPoint from that talk is here. I want to thank in particular my fellow panelists, Dr. Malik Simba (Fresno State) and Uziel Jimenez (Fresno Unified), both of whom know more about the history of racism in Fresno than I do.
If there's anything at all that I could offer to this discussion about how to think toward an antiracist future, and how our work as teachers and educators and activists might labor to bring that future into being, it’s two small points, both of which come from my position as a professor or teacher of English and English literature -- the history in theory of literary expression, you could say. The first principle is historical consciousness and the second is sensitive reading. I’ll take the second first: sensitive reading. Bad readers take what comes to them at face value. They trust clichés, and repeat them. They don’t realize that what they’re hearing today has also been said before, in slightly different shapes, in slightly different but similar ways. They can’t see yet how the pressure of genre – of history— shapes the ideas sold to them as new. They believe in myths.
One of the things that struck me about the history of redlining in Fresno since I started, belatedly, learning about it, was the openness of the records of it, the fact that the archives and information that would enable us to understand this history and potentially to confront it were hiding in plain sight and that those records were accessible, available to any member of the public anywhere. For many those facts didn’t need records or archives: they were archived in the physical memory of Black Fresnans, for example, recorded in the daily experience of our nonwhite neighbors. For others, like me, these archives of violence were secret. It’s just that many of us --I’m talking about me-- hadn't yet known to look for them, known how to look for them: known how to read what we’d find if we did look for them. So one issue that faces us is what strategies of looking and what modes of knowing might be adequate to a history of violence and dispossession and continued racial apartheid to which we are heirs. We need better ways of thinking about our past.
Related to this is historical consciousness. I would submit to you that fully coming to terms with the catastrophic history of racism in our hometown requires that we know the present as a kind of ghostly afterimage of a very long and inherited past. This past, which none of us here had anything truly to do with, as individuals, nevertheless implicates us, involves us—it has never gone away and we all, regardless of race, bear these histories into the present in our own bodies. But seeing that the present as saturated with the past requires that we think historically not in a way that burnishes or furthers the various mythologies that have been used to uphold white supremacy –textbooks, patriotic holidays, making Spanish missions out of sugar cubes, as I did in fourth grade.
The ubiquity or commonness or unavoidability of the mythological structures that have supported white supremacy call for a form of historical reading that cuts through those lies, and can see instead the thickness of the human experiences that have been led in the margins and in the waysides or aftermath of the white supremacist narrative. I think of Uziel [Jimenez]’s curricular revisions at Fresno Unified, which are heroic. Like Uziel’s students, our job then is to become sensitive readers and historical thinkers, able to see the suppressed stories and the sparks of human possibility that have always lived in the outtakes or margins of the myths that so many of us grew up on. This deeply ethical obligation to read and know better is, for white people, also an unpayable debt to our neighbors on the brutal receiving end of those myths.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.