By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
Why would thousands of people across the United States forfeit health and safety in the midst of a pandemic to come together to protest? Many see racism and police brutality as far greater threats than the novel coronavirus.
COVID-19 has unmasked stark, structural inequality in the U.S. Blacks are dying disproportionately, working in essential jobs that expose them to the virus, losing jobs or having pay reduced at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd by a police officer, at this troubled time, is seen as another example of the racism that permeates this country. (Above, protesters outside a Minneapolis police station on Friday night).
"When you see that in front of witnesses, the agent of the state will kneel on a man's neck as he's begging for his life until the life seeps out of his body ... You can't just picture that happening to white Americans," New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told Good Morning America.
Protest, historically, has been the catalyst for change from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.
“I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn but African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer,” NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.”
As events tumble atop each other in the days and weeks ahead, know that historians will attempt to untangle and unravel them. Meantime, African American parents will again have The Talk with their children, the sad but necessary directive about staying alive amid perilous encounters with police.
In this All-Of-The-Above Year (racism, pandemic, economic devastation, political instability), history is vital to giving us perspective, to knowing where humans failed before—and where they prevailed. It guides us when despair shouts.
"My mind has been blown like a candle. I am nothing but an embodied grumble, like everyone else." That’s what historian Eileen Power wrote—in 1939—on the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II.
Nearly a decade later, in the novel The Plague, Albert Camus noted that people enduring chaos have to hold two conflicting things in their mind at the same time. The bacteria of a plague, like the poison of fascism or tyranny, "never dies or disappears." However, "what we learn during a time of pestilence," Camus added, is "that there are more things to admire in [people] than despise.“ (Below, family and friends gather at the spot where George Floyd was killed.)
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Today in a minute
Hero: The disease was mysterious. Ten percent of Hong Kong got influenza. One virologist recognized a pandemic was coming to America in 1957. Maurice Hilleman rushed to create a vaccine. And he saved Americans—and millions of others—from contracting that deadly virus, Nat Geo’s Sydney Combs writes.
It was 99 years ago today: White mobs rampaged through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, burning down a prosperous African American community, killing up to 300 black people, and leaving up to 10,000 homeless. News about one of the deadliest racial massacres in U.S. history, on May 31 and June 1, 1921, was suppressed for decades, but was represented for tens of millions of Americans last year on the hit HBO show Watchmen. The city of Tulsa has vowed to begin excavating suspected mass graves, but the coronavirus has delayed those efforts. On Friday, Human Rights Watch demanded payment of damages for survivors and descendants of the violence, DeNeen Brown reports for the Washington Post.
What Israelis and Palestinians have in common: One thing is genes. That’s clear from a study of DNA from the Biblical Canaanites, whose culture dominated the Holy Land from 3500 B.C. until 1200 B.C. Today, most Arab and Jewish groups in the region owe more than half of their DNA to Canaanites and other peoples who inhabited the ancient Near East, Andrew Lawler writes for Nat Geo.
Who is getting COVID-19? If Native American tribes were counted as states, the five most infected states in the U.S. would all be native tribes, with New York dropping to No. 6. Why is that? “Many Navajo live crowded in small homes where social distancing is impossible, and 40 percent of those on the reservation lack running water,” Nicholas Kristof writes for the New York Times. He finds more deaths among younger people than elsewhere in the U.S., partly because so many patients have diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Titanic confusion: The trailblazing wireless communications aboard the doomed vessel both helped and hurt on the fateful night in 1912 when it struck an iceberg and sank. A telegraph operator was burdened by passenger messages and slow to pick up on the ice threatening the ship. After the iceberg was hit, the operator’s tone shifted and he used a distress signal. But there was confusion over distress signals, Erin Blakemore writes for Nat Geo.
Instagram photo of the day
The queen: “With most museums closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, I think of the moment when I photographed the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti,” says Rena Effendi. “Currently housed at the Neues Museum in Berlin, the bust is believed to have been crafted by the court sculptor, Thutmose ... I found myself admiring the details on the queen's face that made her look more human. It wasn't the symmetry of her face that I found spellbinding. Instead, I was enamored by the subtle wrinkles around her eyes, mouth, between her eyebrows, and along her neck, which gave her a look of mature and more refined beauty.”
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The big takeaway
The Children’s Crusade: Look at Gustave Doré’s 1877 engraving (above). It reflects a popular romanticized view of the 1212 Children’s Crusade as overwhelming—and overwhelmingly children. The truth is still unfolding. The crusade, never that large, may have been comprised mainly of landless peasants. One thing is certain. The crusade, one of eight aiming to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, never even made it to Jerusalem. It may have gone no further than Genoa, writes Enrique Meseguer for Nat Geo’s History magazine
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Overheard at Nat Geo
Halt: For seven years, Pulitzer-winning journalist and Nat Geo Explorer Paul Salopek has hiked through the world’s cradles of civilization, persisting despite pneumonia in the Levant, dysentery in Pakistan, and numerous fevers in India. But now, he’s been stopped—by travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sheltering in Mandalay, Myanmar, Salopek (above) has found empathy among residents for the more than 6.1 million people confirmed infected so far. “Poor New York!” exclaimed Ko Win Aung, a volunteer relief worker, driving Salopek around Mandalay. “Can’t let that happen here.”
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In a few words
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The last glimpse
Exodus: India’s lockdown meant that millions of migrant workers had to flee the nation’s big city on a difficult journey back toward their homes. “There were no jobs, no food,” Amit Kumar, a 23-year-old migrant worker from Bihar, told Nat Geo. Scores of the migrant workers, often forced to walk much of the distance back, have died. Others have been hassled by police. “In the cities they treat us like stray dogs,” said textile worker Krishna Mohan. “Why would they treat us any better now?”
Read: Migrant workers flee India’s cities