June 28, 2006

White Washing History in San Leandro

By Brian Copeland

“Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

“History is written by the victors.”

I think that I’ve heard the aforementioned quotes most of my life in one form or another. I’ve always found them to be somewhat contradictory in that they say that history is important and that it is also subjective depending upon who’s telling the story. In my naiveté, I had always believed that what was important about history was truth, but alas, there was no incident involving a cherry tree and George Washington told many lies, Columbus was a much more complicated (and brutal) man than the noble explorer we were taught about in grade school and Thomas Edison received much credit for inventions that, while developed in his laboratory, he personally had very little to do with.

In spite of these revelations, it is a recent experience that has shaken my personal faith in the accurate dissemination of historical records for posterity.

As you have no doubt heard by now, for the past two years, I have been performing a one man play called NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN, which deals with the organized housing discrimination in San Leandro in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a history that I was never taught in school and one that I only discovered when I began researching a few years back. I found newspaper and magazine articles, transcripts of government hearings as well as a nationally aired documentary (THE SUBURBAN WALL, see it at www.briancopeland.com) on the sorry situation. Today, the formerly 99.99% white enclave is among one of California’s most diverse cities. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t stopped some in the town from trying to hide the fact that it ever happened.

Recently, the city sanctioned the writing of a book on the official history of San Leandro. A young writer was commissioned and given the task of telling the suburb’s story from inception through the present day. As part of his research for the book, he attended my play and planned to use some of my documents in his book.

When he presented his outline to the powers that be, he included a chapter on San Leandro’s Housing Discrimination as well as his intention to interview me regarding the materials I’d uncovered. He was told in no uncertain terms that this material was not to be included in the book.

The young author made the case that the segregationist policies of the past are part of the city’s history and should be recorded. Just because they are shameful doesn’t mean they are invalid. He likened it to writing the history of America and omitting slavery. The opposition was adamant.

To make their case, they went to San Leandro’s mayor, Sheila Young who has spoken on the issue in an LA Times profile on me recently. “Of course, it has to be included,” she said. “It’s history and it happened.”

Next they went to the Assemblywoman representing the district, Ellen Corbett, who also said, “it’s history so it has to be in there.”

At that point, the young author was paid for his outline and told that there was no longer funding available for the project and that the book was dead.

Maybe there’s a more important proverb I forgot. The Golden Rule. “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Brian Copeland’s memoir, ‘Not a Genuine Black Man’, will be released nationwide by Hyperion on July 11.

Posted by marga at June 28, 2006 4:26 PM | TrackBack
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