Distorting history in the U.S. and the Philippines
A section on the six-acre site in Montgomery, Alabama featured massive steel monuments, each representing every U.S. country where Blacks were terrorized and lynched. The victims’ names are engraved on the columns.
More than 4,000 Blacks were lynched in wave that lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
“Those are the cases we can prove,” the young Black man, a staff member at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — popularly known as the National Lynching Memorial, told me. “There are likely more.”
My family and I visited the Deep South last summer, and it had an unexpected effect on me: it gave me a different way of viewing recent developments in the Philippines — and understanding why the son of a corrupt and disgraced dictator was able to reclaim power in the Philippines.
Bongbong won became president thanks to well-financed lies, a campaign that managed to deceive many Filipinos that what the whole world knows happened didn’t really happen — the plunder, the killings, the torture, the rapes, the massacres under Ferdinand Marcos.
Those of us who lived through that dark chapter found ourselves asking: How could this happen?
I found an answer in Alabama, at a four-year-old memorial to the brutality endured by millions of African Americans.
Telling the story of that painful chapter in American history has long been challenging. For decades, descendants of the pro-slavery Confederate leaders controlled the way the Civil War and slavery was taught in schools in the South — including the textbooks and curricula used to educate generations of Americans.
Slavery and the brutalization of millions of Blacks were dramatically downplayed. Young people were taught that Confederate leaders, who fought to defend the right to own slaves, were actually heroes, that Blacks slaves were actually happy and treated well by their owners, and that the Civil War itself was not really about slavery, but about defending the southern way of life.
As historian Kevin Levin said in a Vox documentary on how the descendants of the generals who lost their bid to preserve slavery in the American South responded to their humiliating defeat, “They understand that how you educate, who wins the writing game and who wins the battle over history ultimately wins the war.”
Descendants of the Confederate leaders even built massive monuments in southern cities honoring the military leaders who led the war efforts whose goal was to uphold their right to own slaves.
Decades of struggle, including the victories of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s, helped highlight the truth and push for change.
But the lies and the distortions persisted.
The Trump years saw the rise of the forces of white nationalism and white supremacy, and renewed attempts to distort the painful history of slavery and racism in the United States. That movement that featured a campaign to ban books in America’s schools, including works “focused on issues of race or the history of slavery and racism,” Pen America said.
Many books, plays and films have delved into America’s history as a nation that once embraced and celebrated slavery. And there have been many memorials and museums dedicated to remembering that history.
But clearly, these weren’t enough. Clearly, more books, films, plays and memorials are needed.
One thing struck me as we were walking around the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Slavery ended more than 150 years ago. The Civil Rights Movement reached its peak more than 50 years ago.
But despite all that time and all the gains from struggles that were often long and painful, the need to remember and to talk about what happened to Blacks decades and centuries ago remained strong.
The plans for the Alabama memorial were already underway when this movement was gaining momentum under Trump. The memorial’s completion in 2018 was appropriate. The National Lynching Memorial opened just as the racist wave under Trump was getting stronger.
As I walked with my family around the memorial, the question that many of us from the martial law generation, the Martial Law Babies who lived through and joined the fight against the Marcos dictatorship — how could this happen? — became easier to answer.
It happened because people forget, and those who want them to forget, who benefit from the lies and the distortions will do everything they can, will take every opportunity to hasten the process of forgetting, to spread lies, to distort and even bury the past.
The same thing happened in the Philippines. The Marcos forces used the billions stolen from the country during the dictator’s 21-year-reign to launch a slick, well-funded campaign to distort the past — to portray the regime known throughout the world for plundering and brutalizing the country as paradise.
Just like in Alabama, many Filipinos see the need for more books, films, plays and memorials to remember a painful and ugly past.
I wrote last week about the new documentary “11,103” which featured the legally-mandated plan to build a martial law museum.
“Hindi tayo makakalimutan, hindi ito mabubura,” Chuck Crisanto, who is leading the effort based on a 2013 law that also compensated victims of the Marcos dictatorship, says. “These stories will never be forgotten. They will never be erased. Even if censorship is imposed in the Philippines and we lose everything.”
It’s an uphill fight. It is widely expected that the Bongbong will oppose and block the planned museum which would highlight the abuses and atrocities during his father’s rule.
Meanwhile, the fight is on to preserve and even expand an existing memorial, the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani, which was built shortly after the fall of the regime.
The Bantayog also faces a tough fight under a president who gained power by denying the history that it seeks to make sure will never be forgotten.
“We knew the memory would fade,” executive director May Rodriguez told Rappler in March. “We know there were efforts for the Marcoses to return. We did not expect this vigor, this huge push they are doing just to accomplish it. … We’ll have to force ourselves to rethink our concept of reaching out.”
But Rodriguez, who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, remained upbeat, expressing the same kind of optimism and commitment that I saw in the young African American I spoke with at the Alabama.
“In the short term, we will lose some of the battles,” she told Rappler. But “in the long term, I have no doubt — I have no doubt that the Marcoses will lose because we have the truth.”