The news is all about how Melania Trump was channeling Michelle Obama last night. But the Congressman from Iowa’s 4th District was busily repeating old but, sadly, energetic white supremacist lies.
“Where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” —Rep. Steve King, July 18, 2016
Whether the people who contributed more than “any other subgroup” are “old white people,” as King originally said, or “Western civilization,” as he said in a quick definitional retreat, it means simply: we’re the superior race.
But many people may nod along because it’s the history they learned. Sure, that’s us! We’re the cradle of civilization! And then when the evidence of other peoples’ accomplishments becomes too much to deny, we deftly sweep them up into our tent. Egypt, with all its accomplishments, can’t possibly be African–it’s “ours” (Western, white–Steve King’s kind of people). The Babylonians developed algebra centuries before Christ–oh, then they must be part of Western civilization too! (Even though they’re the bad guys in the Bible and seem to have been located in . . . oh dear . . . Iraq.) By the way, speaking of math, the supposed birthplace of Western thought, ancient Greece, was embarrassingly late to the foundational concept of zero. The Egyptians, Babylonians, and Olmecs were busily using zero while Socrates’s contemporaries were still dismissing it.
And then there’s agriculture, astronomy, music, literature, art, religion, philosophy, navigation, etc., all shaped by the contributions of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the pre-“Columbian” Americas, even though in U.S. American education, these contributions are often afterthoughts at most.
I remember when an English professor at my college asserted that the syllabus of his early-American lit class was composed of white male writers because others just hadn’t contributed. Students started posting flyers all over campus: “Professor, have you heard of:” followed by a long list of African-American and female writers of the time. I don’t know if it changed his views, and I doubt very much that such a stream of “people you should have heard of” would change Rep. King’s. But that list changed me forever. So, not for King but for the sake of anyone who might be thinking, quietly, “He’s right . . . ,” please comment with some of the greatest contributors to human thought and culture who were not “white people.”