Peek Ignores Indigenous History

To the Editors:

I was dismayed to read a specific sentence in one of Booker C. Peek’s letters about the developing legal confrontation between the College and Gibson’s Bakery (“Oberlin, Gibson’s Should Settle Out-of-Court,” Nov. 17, 2017). The offending line was tangential to Peek’s main argument, part of a brief overview of the College’s history. The line reads: “The founders of the College settled in a wilderness in the 19th century, a site where there were no humans at all.”

While it may seem like a minor quibble, I find it deeply disturbing that a professor emeritus of Africana Studies, a scholar who has studied and taught about issues of American white supremacy, would fail to perceive the rich tapestry of racist ideology woven into such a remark. In fact, the land to which Peek refers was part of a territory formerly reserved for the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Ohio in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, negotiated between the United States and a confederation of native peoples including the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware nations, and was only formally ceded under constant pressure from illegal New England settlers in the 1805 Treaty of Fort Industry. Not only did these treaties result from a blatant war of U.S. imperialist aggression, waged throughout the early 1790s as an explicit prelude to ethnic cleansing — but it was precisely in order to execute this military invasion, to accelerate the flood of white supremacist settlement that would soon overrun the land on which Oberlin sits, that President Washington and the U.S. Congress formally established a professional standing army in 1792 under the terms of their new Constitution. (For more on this war and its unsettling implications, I recommend the recent book Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the US Army and the Invasion that Opened the West by author and historian William Hogeland, OC ’77.)

On a broader level, the hackneyed trope of the noble pioneer advancing boldly into the uninhabited wilderness of the frontier, transforming a barren wasteland into a shining beacon of progress and civilization, has been an ideological touchstone for centuries of ethnic cleansing and racist genocide throughout the world. The Americans used this trope to justify their annexation and settlement of North America; the Boers used it to justify their annexation and settlement of southern Africa; the Israelis use it to justify their ongoing annexation and settlement of Palestine; and had they not been thwarted by the Allied armies, the Nazis would have used it to justify their planned annexation and settlement of the eastern European lebensraum. One of the most important anti-racist advances of recent progressive scholarship since the bad old days of “This Land Is Your Land” has been to recognize that regardless of how free, just, and nondiscriminatory any particular settler society may appear to its own people, to their ethnically cleansed victims such settler-colonial conquests often appear more alike than different.

Peek could well be correct that a “[legal] settlement in the dark” would be a mutually beneficial outcome for this dispute between Gibson’s and the College, but if his goal is to “produce light for a future just as bright as that of our past,” then Prof. Peek and like-minded antiracist scholars would do well to avoid the kinds of unthinking rhetorical flourishes that help keep the racist atrocities of America’s territorial settlement shrouded in a much more problematic darkness of their own.