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June 9, 2020 Philip Zea

In Memory of George Floyd

George Floyd’s name entered the national memory when he was suffocated to death during a police “incident” in Minneapolis on May 25. Despite the alleged crime, four officers subdued him, one with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That level of lethal force far surpassed any measure required to secure the “situation” and raises the call for police reform. Suffocated at the same time were George Floyd’s civil liberties and right to live. Tested to the hilt are the principles of American democracy against the cold reality of history. George Floyd’s last words, uttered in anguish, will always live in the present tense: “I can’t breathe.” That is the most fitting epitaph for oppression ever conceived. As a nation and as individuals, George Floyd’s death leaves us aghast and deeply concerned about our future together. Historic Deerfield joins arm in arm with everyone seeking justice and an end to racial inequalities.

George Floyd is only the latest. He follows Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the national consciousness. But the line is far longer and seems endless. There are uncountable thousands of African Americans destroyed by bigotry and hatred over the last 500 years in the Western Hemisphere. Want to discuss genocide? Add to that long line the forceful removal and destruction of thousands of Native Americans over the same 500 years of Anglo-European migration and dominance. One problem is that we tend to compartmentalize oppression along ethnic or racial lines. We align with others like ourselves before embracing someone who appears different. Regardless of race, we all fail to see the entire, sorry picture.

The longest view that cultural history museums can take poses challenges for places like Historic Deerfield. Those who know Deerfield would never have heard of the place were it not for violence. What is now a beautiful, tranquil village in western Massachusetts 300 years ago was the northwestern-most outpost of the British Empire in contested territory and a strategic pawn during the colonial wars. Deerfield experienced scores of raids by the French in Canada and their Native allies, who in turn were displaced targets of English retaliation whenever possible. During the American Revolution, Deerfield remained an important entrepot for moving men and supplies to battlefields north and west. Through it all, Deerfield for 12,000 years was and is part of the homelands of the Pocumtucks, who like their Native allies and adversaries are among the ultimate casualties of displacement across the continent. How ironic that diversity is the American story that so many fail to hear.

The deepest challenge and greatest opportunity for history museums are that our collections contain artifacts and works of art that are themselves the products of ethnic colonialism and economic advantages in raw materials and labor taken from others. The whole story is there. Our responsibility as its warden is to use these collections to teach all sides of these histories. The problem is that Historic Deerfield’s programmatic initiatives in Native and African American studies, and the websites and programs of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, are not enough by themselves despite our best efforts. While better programming is critical to the educational process inspired by the messages from a real place in American history, these messages are not penetrating our problems. We must do more to share how these historical realities, painful as they are, help to explain how we became the people and the nation we are today. We have a moral and educational responsibility to remember that during much of the 18 th century nearly 20 percent of the inhabitants who lived along The Street in Deerfield were African Americans, most of whom were enslaved. We also must expand the truth that the so-called English village of Deerfield, extolled in the history books, is but a veneer of human experience on the surface of millennia of Native life in the Connecticut River Valley. We must intensify our understanding of these truths and realities—along with the relationships between cause and effect—in order to dissolve the biases of people today.

My personal opinion encompasses these facts. George Floyd’s death from excessive force has ruptured faith in authority for thousands worldwide. Our eyes are wider to the pervasiveness and pain of racial injustice. The COVID-19 pandemic has ruptured confidence in leadership and tested everyone’s nerves in a deadly game of viral uncertainty. Our eyes are wider to the stunning inequalities in national health care. For most Americans, their refrigerators rather than Wall Street are the true measure of national economic health. For years now, a reality of self-delusion and entitlement, rather than self-reliance and cooperation, has suspended legislative productivity. Where is the vaccine that can save lives from COVID-19, restore George Floyd, fill the refrigerators of those below the poverty line, and make our neighborhoods safe?

While national problems seem monolithic, there is value in tackling the largest problem that we can solve. The truth is that Americans are fighting two plagues rather than one. COVID-19 threatens our physical health while profound weakness in leadership within two of our three branches of government has infected our national well-being through failures to anticipate, to negotiate, and to enact legislation that rids our country of social injustice and racism. I for one deplore both the President and Congress for their performance, and I despair the decision-making process of both the Republican and the Democratic parties and their national committees.

Why does compromise only lead to the lowest common denominator? Answer: Because the bane of American citizenship is old-fashioned, party politics where personalities are more powerful than policies, where “dirty tricks” take turns defining right and wrong across the political aisle, and where the politics of the national newsroom dilute facts with personal opinion. Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, a Socialist, a liberal, a conservative—whatever, let us embrace the democratic process in the November elections to address our problems and more importantly to instill confidence that the greater good for the majority of all Americans is well served. Whether this is the time for the emergence of a ‘third party,’ as has happened in our history, is hard to say. Close scrutiny of every incumbent and candidate in Washington, D.C., and at home will bring new talent and statesmanship to where we need them most. Black lives matter, and all Americans deserve better leadership. The ballot box is the petri dish that may save us from at least one plague. Even if we transform the November elections into a referendum, we cannot bring back George Floyd to his family and friends, but we may create enough change to sustain his memory.

Philip Zea
President & CEO