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Public History and Race: European Edition


One thing that is interesting in the United States right now is that unlike ever before in our history, at least nearly everyone left of center is willing to deal in some way with our unsavory history. Sometimes this manifests itself in radical action, such as vandalizing monuments to treason in defense of slavery. But sometimes in manifests itself in Heather Thompson’s book on the Attica prison massacre being the #1 book on the New York Times bestseller list, which might be the only work by a professional historian to ever do so and certainly the only one to tell a story deeply critical of American institutions. The National Park Service has incorporated a tremendous amount of social history into its sites and there are many that focus on African-American history, less on other minority groups. This is a huge difference from, say, mid-century liberals who were full-throated believers in the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner, which is why Arthur Schlesinger could write The Age of Jackson without discussing Indian Removal. It simply didn’t have a place in how that generation saw American history and that extends far beyond Schlesinger. Sure, our politics are a disaster, but at least part of that is related to the fact that large swaths of the nation want an honest appraisal of our past because they have embraced a multicultural present and equally large swaths of the nation very much don’t want that.

European politics are arguably less terrible than ours, although I as I have stated in the past, the supposedly better European societies with their welfare states were always predicated on ethnic homogeneity, hammered home with the widespread ethnic cleansing both during and after (which is less acknowledged) after World War II. Now that Europe is dealing with American levels of racial minorities, white people are flipping out in much the same way.

But what has always struck me in my trips to Europe is how, unlike in the U.S., public historical displays are almost entirely about royalty and colonialism. There, it seems to me, is nearly no public reckoning of the terrible events of the past, outside of making the World War II concentration camps public memorials. Admittedly, I haven’t spent huge parts of my life in Europe, but the only exception I’ve seen is in Ireland, which unlike the rest of Europe, has a recent history as a colonized nation. In Portugal, where I spent some time a decade ago, it’s all celebration of colonialism all the time. And now that some in Portugal are wanting a monument to that small fact that Portuguese wealth was largely built on shipping millions of Africans into slavery, well, the Portuguese are not happy.

Some white Portuguese observers argue the country does not have a racism problem, however.

“Anyone who has any knowledge of Europe has to agree with us: Portugal is probably, if not definitely, the least racist country in Europe,” the academic and founder of the International Lusophone Movement, Renato Epifânio, wrote last year.

Uh huh.

Writer and historian João Pedro Marques accepts that descendants of Africans have a right to remember their people’s suffering. But he argues that activists are exaggerating Portugal’s role in the slave trade and distorting its colonial history for political purposes.

“I think that those who are campaigning against racism want to substitute one biased view of events with an even more biased one,” he said.

Cool story bro.

Born to parents from Cape Verde in Portugal, Dr Roldão has Portuguese citizenship, but she cites an “unfair” 1981 law that prevents some of African descent from being considered Portuguese despite being born in the country.

“Portugal continues to see non-white people as separate to its national identity,” says Mamadou Ba of SOS Racism Portugal.

He was born in Senegal and has lived in Portugal for more than 20 years, and says the law means “children born in Portugal are considered foreigners in their own country”.

“Being black in Portugal means experiencing economic, cultural, social and political subordination. To be black in Portugal is to be confronted permanently with symbolic and physical violence in everyday life,” he said.

Yeah, pretty clear Portugal doesn’t have a racism problem!

Writer João Pedro Marques agrees that racist people exist in Portugal, but he insists it does not have a problem with racism.

Under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Marques says that historic figures were “heroes without defect or blemish”. Now he complains that the “politically correct far left have pushed us to the opposite extreme and our ancestors have become the worst in the world”.

It is indeed shocking that Europe is reverting back toward fascism.

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