I am probably the only St. Louis resident in his 20s who nerds out by regularly watching the PBS television show “Donnybrook.” I love watching the show because it’s the only program in the area for residents to hear an informed discussion about local political issues, of which I take a great interest.
The July 31 broadcast of “Donnybrook” brought about an interesting debate about a political cartoon that was included in an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the largest newspaper in St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch used the op-ed in question to advocate for the election of a new Democratic candidate to replace Charlie Dooley, the incumbent candidate for St. Louis County Executive. The political cartoon included in the op-ed, which is pictured above, shows Dooley at his desk with a sign that reads “The Buck Stops Here,” with the word “here” crossed out.
The political cartoon aimed to make a point about financial mismanagement in the Dooley administration, but many residents took issue with the juxtaposition of Dooley, who is black, with the slogan “The Buck Stops.” The word “buck” has many different connotations in American English and can refer to a form of currency, a male deer, or a person’s name. But another connotation refers to a racial slur that was used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to refer to African American males who “absolutely refused to bend to the law of white authority and were irredeemably violent, rude, and lecherous.” A “black buck” was often labeled as someone intellectually inferior to white people, prone to fits of wild emotion, and possessed with uncontrollable sexual desires for white women.
Of course, the term “the buck stops here” also refers to a slogan made famous by President Harry S. Truman, the only U.S. President from Missouri. Some of the panelists on “Donnybrook” along with local residents argued that the political cartoon referred to Truman’s use of the term without any intention of alluding to the racial slur. I agree that the term within the context of the political cartoon refers to Truman’s use of “the buck stops here,” but it’s also evident to me that the staff at the Post-Dispatch were clearly ignorant of the messy historical connection between African American males and the use of the term “buck.” I don’t believe they posted the cartoon out of malicious racism, but they displayed a degree of insensitivity and historical ignorance by posting the cartoon without comment or clarification once the controversy ensued. Not everyone thinks the Post-Dispatch did anything wrong, however. One caller to “Donnybrook” succinctly explained her defense of the Post-Dispatch by arguing that “I didn’t know ‘buck’ was a racial slur. I interpreted the political cartoon as referring to Truman’s use of the term and I don’t think anyone should be offended by the cartoon.”
Throughout our lives we make deliberate choices about the things we want to educate ourselves about. Since we can’t know everything about everything, we also make deliberate choices about the things we remain ignorant about. We choose our ignorances and live with the consequences of those choices. I am not very good at or interested in mathematics, and the decision to not pursue a career with an emphasis in mathematics means that I am largely ignorant about engineering, accounting, quantum physics, and a whole slew of things I could and should know more about. I’ve also sacrificed some of my future potential earnings in bypassing this sort of career. So it goes.
Other people choose to ignore history. They don’t find it interesting or relevant to their lives, so they deliberately choose to stay ignorant of the past. One can choose this path if they are so inclined, but the reality is that history is with us whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. It never leaves.
The words and symbols we use to communicate with each other are loaded with historical meanings that are enmeshed in the very fabric of their existence. Whether or not we choose to educate ourselves about the historical and racial connotations of the word “buck,” the history of that term will remain a fundamental part of its meaning and definition, even if the term changes over time. Similarly, whether or not we choose to educate ourselves about the messy history of a symbol like the Confederate flag, the history of that flag as a symbol of slavery, oppression, and opposition to Civil Rights will never go away. When a high school senior petitions her school to reinstate a Confederate soldier named “Rebel Man” as the school’s mascot and argues that “the mascot we had might be a racist figure or represent slavery to some people, but to us it does not personify that in any way,” that person fails to realize that the history of the Confederacy doesn’t go away because you choose to dismiss that history or assign your own meaning to it. History is larger than any one individual and their emotions or ignorances.
Why is history important to us all? Because it’s there lurking inside all of us whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.