The Forgotten Blood
21 April 2013
Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev present the most recent reminder about a complex and dangerous world in the twenty-first century. Most Americans’ reactions to the young men’s names and ancestry were collective ignorance of southern Russia, and central Asia more broadly. The Tsarnaev’s attack on the Boston Marathon remains a challenge for the American perspective on global affairs precisely because we have done so little to learn about the world and our relationship to it. Instead, we focus on the latest celebrity gossip or headlines in athletic entertainment. We have forgotten the details of our bloody struggle for human liberty and the accompanying sacrifices required for global economic development.
The last three federal administrations have engaged a global war on terrorism – a conflict arguably less winnable than previous domestic commitments to eliminate addiction, poverty, and crime. Terror is a sensational description of political violence in human civilization. Even in the relatively young United States, violence was endemic in every facet of life until the last forty years. As historians David Roediger and Walter Johnson have noted, the Silicon Valley of the mid-nineteenth century United States was the region composed of southern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and northern Mississippi. The brutality central to racial slavery assured the profit margins that built the textile factories in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Most of us have forgotten this blood.
Similarly, the western conception of the medieval world begins with the collapse of the Roman Empire, briefly touches on the Ottoman Turks, and then returns to the consolidation of the Catholic Church in western Europe. This narrative ignores the core importance of Marco Polo’s record of travel across central Asia. Byzantium was the western frontier of the early medieval world. Connections across the region from the Umayyads to the Shahis to the Sui represent a world system of military,diplomatic, and economic relationships almost entirely beyond the American imagination. If the blood of the black South is forgotten, the bones of Chechnya and Kazakhstan lay Jurassic in our lives.
Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of civilizations past. Remembering would help us better prevent future events like the bombing of the Boston Marathon. We would find greater kinship with rural people who feel we neglect and disparage them as savage. Especially in the context ofglobal climate change, the lessons of lost technological leadership and commercial power show that someday the coasts of North America might lie beneath the seas. From homes on the Moon or Mars, our descendant children might tell unimaginable stories about the sprawling cities that first reached the sky, despite the bloody commerce we maintained over centuries.
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.