Alex Ramsey: Learn from history, and find a better way forward
The following is adapted from a speech I first delivered during the Vigil for Remembrance, Peace, and Justice on Sept. 26 in Nevada City:
“It is impossible to grow up in Nevada County without becoming a student of history. That’s because it’s impossible to live in Nevada County without encountering history nearly everywhere you look. Rusted mine carts and stamp mills stand as decorations on street corners and front lawns, and so many place names echo our history — Gold Flat, Del Oro, the Miners Foundry — that the words almost lose their meaning.
These are the most obvious examples, the ones that evoke a quaint picture of our community and its Gold Rush legacy. Many of the signs, however, are harder to see, but no less important — something I observed when I drove to Malakoff Diggins State Park in August. In the 1850s, miners there began extracting gold from the earth by blasting it with hydraulic cannons, which carved away entire hillsides with millions of gallons of water. The results were devastating, as cities in the Central Valley flooded with silt washing downhill and thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed. In 1884, after a court declared hydraulic mining illegal, the people who lived nearby moved on, leaving the mining operations to be forgotten.
But the earth has not forgotten. As you walk around Malakoff today, the impact of those violent, ravenous years is immediately obvious. The earth remains scarred, marked by colorful layers of sediment shorn away by the cannons and left exposed to the elements. The mounds themselves look unnatural, alien, formed not by the slow whittling away of the winds, but by the sharp, uncaring teeth of greed, profit, and conquest. The miners may have packed up camp, but they never really left.
When those miners first arrived here, having murdered and dispossessed many of the Nisenan people who had occupied this land (and on whose land we remain), there were approximately 3.2 million slaves in the United States. Some of them were my ancestors, who toiled on plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi and whose appropriated labor helped the United States become a global superpower. When Malakoff shut down, still they toiled, now as sharecroppers living in the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan. History would follow my family across space and time, as my grandparents discovered when they moved to California and found their housing choices constrained by racist red lines on a map. And that history follows me today, too.
History shows us that the world can’t be changed by closing our eyes and believing in a story that better suits our preferences. History is raw, like the earth at Malakoff, demanding to be recognized. It helps us understand why Black people in this country are killed by police at over twice the rate of white people, and incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people: because our criminal justice system has historically developed as a way of managing real (and imagined) social problems, and been enforced against groups that have historically been maligned by racists as inherently dangerous and immoral. It helps explain why, for every dollar of wealth that a white family has, a Black family has a dime: largely because government policies have long favored white homeownership at the expense of Black homeownership. Like the hydraulic mining at Malakoff, these historical realities are well documented, well understood, and we have to live with their consequences.
And fortunately, history also shows us that the future is not inevitable or unchangeable. We can make better decisions, recognizing where past generations have stumbled and sinned. And we can learn from the examples of those who, like my ancestors, were able to make a way out of no way, and whose resilience and willpower enables me to hope to find a way out of what so often feels like no way at all.
It is impossible to grow up in Nevada County and pretend that history doesn’t matter. We, in this community, are in some ways particularly equipped to recognize this fact, to learn all we can from it, to find a better way forward, and to speak up to those who wish the story was different. We should know, better than most, that we cannot just “get over” our history. We should know, better than most, that it is futile to tell the mountains that the miners left a long time ago, and hope that this will heal the scars they left behind.”
Alex Ramsey is a second year law student at Harvard University. He lives in Nevada City and grew up in Grass Valley.
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