Leonard Pitts: Ridicule of sorrow is last great death of cultures

Published 12:01 am Thursday, February 14, 2019

By Leonard Pitts

A few words about the Trail of Tears and other jokes.

Granted, the Trail of Tears would hardly seem a laughing matter. To the contrary, as recounted by History.com, it was an ordeal of robbery, mass relocation and death, growing out of what white Americans of the 19th century saw as their “Indian problem.” By that they meant American Indians held lands in the southeast United States — including parts of North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida — that white people coveted.

They tried various schemes to get it. They tried “civilizing” the Indians — requiring them to learn English, accept European concepts of property rights, convert to Christianity. They tried looting, terrorism and mass murder. Beginning in 1830, they tried The Indian Removal Act. It allowed for Native Americans to be forcibly resettled to the West, pushed out of white people’s way exactly as a bulldozer pushes debris.

Prodded by the U.S. Army, Native Americans made the journey on foot, walking over a thousand miles, sometimes in chains. Epidemics of whooping cough, typhus, cholera and dysentery ravaged them. Many starved, and thousands died before the remnant reached the land the federal government said was now theirs.

Eventually, white people took that, too. It became the state of Oklahoma.

The Cherokee dubbed the walk “The Trail Where We Cried.” And no, you wouldn’t think there was anything funny about it, but the Donalds Trump would disagree.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted a jab at Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, referencing her claim of Native-American ancestry: “See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”

Then his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a screenshot of his father’s tweet along with this response from another Twitter user: “The Native American genocide continues with another murder by the president.”

“Savage!!!” exulted Don-Boy. “Love my president.”

Have you slapped your knee yet?

Not that this blithe disrespect is unique. To the contrary, in the ridicule of these two rich twits, one hears an echo of school kids mocking a Native-American elder chanting a prayer song on the National Mall. For that matter, one spies a white medical student in blackface standing by a classmate in a Ku Klux Klan hood. And one hears too many white people laughing under the delusion that these things are jokes. It is ridicule as barrier to knowing or feeling, as all-purpose defense against claims on conscience. Never mind that when you laugh at someone else’s traumas and passages, you diminish them. You exile them from empathy.

Ridicule, you see, is the last great death of a culture. The first comes when trauma is inflicted upon a people, killing the lives they once knew. The second comes when that trauma is broadly forgotten, when it is turned into myths and John Wayne movies, killing the memory of who they were and what happened to them. The third is when a people and their traumas are reduced to punchlines, killing their humanity and making them absurd.

These processes operated long before Trump arrived. But under him, they have gained the imprimatur of presidential approval. He has made arrogant disregard for the passages and lives of people other than white ones OK again. This is the true state of our Union. And people of color and people of conscience should be appalled that it is now necessary to say what was obvious not so very long ago:

The Trail Where We Cried is sacred.

Show some respect.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.