Dana Bivens is a professional event rider who bases in Virginia. Dana’s essay for EN’s 2020 Diversity Scholarship, “Inaction Is Silence” provides some important reflections on the state of equity and diversity in equestrian sports. On the final day of Black History Month, she takes a dive into the truths, meanings, and lessons behind this month — and how we can use this knowledge to improve our world and our sport.
For Black History Month this year, I had intended to write a historical account of an important African American equestrian from our past. As I began researching equestrians, it dawned on me that there is a bigger issue at heart that is often untold during Black History Month. Why it is important for us to look back, understand history, and make sure all groups are equitably represented? Because understanding our own history is essential to understanding our present.
As George Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the future controls the past.” This control leads to political or social power, which often excludes a historical perspective and can lead to disastrous consequences. When black, brown, indigenous, and any marginalized voices are left out, and political motivations shape the story, the results can influence the thoughts and biases of all who are fed that history.
Following World War II, the growing Civil Rights movement in the United States created a sense of uncertainty and fear among those in the south who wanted to maintain the status quo. This was true of the Virginia General Assembly, whose leadership feared the change that was percolating at the highest levels of government, and a growing push for school desegregation. Benjamin Muse, a Virginia State Senator, recalled that many members felt “the movement to end racial segregation was a part of a communist conspiracy,” and an organized effort to change the historical narrative to support the segregationist’s viewpoint took form.
In the 1950’s the Virginia General Assembly appointed the Virginia Textbook Commission to review and rewrite three history textbooks that would be used in all Virginia schools. The commission had license to select historians, revise publishers, and craft a narrative that suited their political objectives.
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The Commission produced three books, one each for fourth, seventh, and eleventh grades. These texts would be distributed to all Virginia public-school students, no matter their race, and remained in use from 1957 to 1965. Dr. Francis B. Simpkins, one of the historians selected for the fourth-grade text wrote in his 1947 book, The South Old and New, that “slavery was an education process which transformed the black man from a primitive to a civilized person. The true victims… were masters [who were] forced to tolerate tasks undone, orders forgotten, lying, and thievery.”
The seventh-grade text titled Virginia: History, Government, and Geography, maintained that “a feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. Even if the master was not a kind person, it was to his own interest to keep his slaves contented and in good health. If he treated them well, he could win their loyalty and cooperation. Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living themselves and for those whom they worked.”
In eleventh grade, students were received Cavalier Commonwealth: History and Government of Virginia, which argued that “bondage as they knew it was not totally evil; both [races] realized that enslavement in a civilized world had been better… for the Negro than the barbarities he might have suffered in Africa.”
For eight years, millions of Virginia students were fed lies by those in power, those whom they trusted, which smothered the true atrocities that took place under a veil of happiness and complicity. It also taught students that African Americans lacked intellect, were innately lazy and dishonest, and they benefited from slavery much as a dog benefits from a good master.
The effects of the textbook commission hit me for the first time when I was twenty years old and working as a waitress outside of Richmond, Virginia. The owner of the restaurant saw an African American man walking outside and became angry saying, “slavery was the best thing that ever happened to Black people. All they had to do was work and they got food, shelter, and clothing. Now I have to pay for their laziness.” I remember staring at him, appalled. Did people really think this?
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I confronted him for this belief, stated that I was “one of those Black people,” hoping to shock him into shame or contriteness. Conversely, he yelled, “you should be ashamed of yourself” and I was subsequently fired for standing up to the boss. When I called the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission to report the offense, I was told that, because it was a small establishment with only a few full-time staff, the EEOC did not cover these claims and I would have to pursue things myself with a lawyer. As a college student without the means to do so, I sadly let the issue go and moved on.
Looking back, I can see the parallels between this man’s prejudice and the narrative pushed by the Virginia Textbook Commission. As children in school, we rarely challenge the information fed to us or the teachers who embody a seemingly endless source of knowledge and wisdom. Sharing a history that portrays slaves as complicit, white owners as caring and loving, and a nirvana-like existence in the Antebellum South soured the perception of students for nearly a decade.
For many, these beliefs remained for a lifetime, shaping actions and stealing access to education, job opportunities, or even personal connections that were shunned by peers. These books laid the groundwork for impressions, biases, and misconceptions that bleed into modern political and social life in Virginia and throughout the country.
Those of you reading may wonder… what does this have to do with equestrian sports? There is often a lot of confusion surrounding the idea of equitable sport and equal access. I have heard from many people that horse sports are open to all, but the limiting factor is money, not race. Consider this: the reconstruction area, subsequent Jim Crow laws in the south, and policies across the country actively worked to exclude African Americans from business opportunities, voting, education, and other institutions. The Homestead Act, which awarded land in the Midwest to entrepreneurial pioneers, was not open to Black people.
Today, many of these profitable mega farms that produce food for the nation are owned by the same families who were given the land over a century ago and continue to profit from them. In the industrializing north, African Americans were barred from growing unions and organized labor movements, meaning they were excluded from jobs that would have pulled them from the depths of poverty. Even today, studies have shown that, when employers are looking at job resumes and selecting candidates to interview, those with “black sounding names” are less likely to receive a call back even if they possess the same qualities as a “white sounding” candidate.
This historical legacy has created centuries of economic hardship for an entire race of people, a formidable glass ceiling that prevents many from achieving the economic success that others are able to pursue without these barriers.
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History and culture has created a powerful prejudice against African Americans which prevents many from achieving the success they desire. As a result, education, wealth, and other dreams are off limits. In equestrian sports, money is of course a limiting factor, but the larger issue is access to the same opportunities to achieve that wealth in order to participate in our sport or other endeavors that possess a sizeable financial commitment.
In our society, as in our sport, this bias manifests in snap judgements and lack of consideration for the background and struggles of others. We must understand our history and the roots of our sport, in order to understand that of those who share a seat at the table. Only then can we move forward together and forge a more just, equitable future and a new normal where equestrians are from all walks of life and are able to pursue their passions alongside peers, free from racial stigma.
On this last day of Black History Month, I challenge everyone who reads this to take a deep dive into your own prejudices and biases. I also challenge you to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the information that you read. Recognize the source, decipher the author’s motivation, and use your intuition and critical thinking skills to understand the messages both written and implied.
Understanding history gives us all a more complete picture of our past, which helps us understand the present, and make wiser decisions for the future. Embrace the stories of Black, indigenous, and people of color who, until recently, were largely absent from the historical narrative. Use their struggles, victories, and everyday challenges as additional educational fuel to create a more rounded and accurate picture of this nation’s past and to pave the way for a better tomorrow.