Is "Polar racism" unintentional?
UK Guardian says:
"...a question of why it took so long to
acknowledge Henson's role as an explorer...It has been
turned into a race issue ...Fiennes's claim has
infuriated supporters of Henson. Had he been white, says...Peary's great-grandson, I don't think there would be
any question...that Peary took a reliable witness and
reached the Pole. It is only because of racist attitudes
that the question of reliability has come up."
In this slim book Randall
Kennedy investigates the social history of
Nigger, a racial slur used for centuries to
bring insult and degradation upon the Black
population particularly in the Jim Crow
Source: Polar honour revives
racial dispute. by Ben Summerskill,
society editor Observer, Sunday December 31, 2000.
|Unintentional racism, a tutorial
Guardian writer Ben Summerskill may be as confused and mistaken with historical facts as many
non-experts are. A professor who regularly lectures on racism (and requested to remain anonymous)
at one of England's famous Universities (you know, like Oxford or Cambridge, etc.)
was so upset by the Summerskill article that the
professor telephoned me from Britain and explained how
subtle "inadvertent racism" can be.
My comments in red (scroll down page)
focus on what we assume is unintentional racism in this
account of Henson's role.
|Historical inaccuracy, corrected
|I see inaccurate comments made in Summerskill's article that reveal distortions
of the facts concerning Peary's 1909 expedition. These seem to me to simply reiterates the words of
second or third hand sources who were
parroting the vindictive book
written by colossal fraud Fred Cook in 1911. The latest of these
writers, Wally Herbert, (Noose of Laurels, 1988) was completely
discredited in the USA
by a scientific investigation.
The Guardian Observer article:
This is the event Fiennes is commenting upon:
"Sir Ranulph Fiennes, ...has reignited a race row
which simmered in America for much of the twentieth century by
rejecting claims that one of the first people to reach the North
Pole was a black man." (continued further
down the page...)
(Ben Summerskill article, continued...)
"...critics of Peary and Henson had claimed that the two could
not have traveled 30 miles a day as they claimed during their
final five days on the way to the Pole. Suffering from
frostbite, Peary was pulled on a sled."
(above) Photo from Northwest Passage—a professional expedition
outfitter who have no problem traveling as fast as Henson &
Peary did! See what the surface looks like near the Pole? Who
says you can't travel 30 miles a day? Answer: Persons who do
not use dog teams (polar man-haulers) or people who do not
know what they are talking about.
(April 1) Came on at a good clip for about 4 hours when
the sledges overtook me. After that obliged to sit on sledges
most of the time ...or else run to keep up. Kept the pace for
10 hours....Have no doubt we covered 30 miles but will be
conservative & call it 25...(April 3) Dogs frequently on
trot...(April 4) over 10 hours on a direct course, 25 dogs
often on the trot, occasionally on the run. 25 miles....(April
5) dog on trot much of the time. Last two hours on young ice
of a north & south lead they were often galloping. 10 hours.
25 miles or more. Great....(April 6) The rise in the temp to
-15˚ has reduced friction of the sledges 25% & gives the dogs
appearance of having caught the spirits of the party. The more
sprightly ones as they trot along with tightly curved tails,
repeatedly toss their heads with short barks & yelps. 12 hours
on a direct course. (30 miles)
Matthew Henson and his employer, Robert Peary, claimed to have
been the first men to reach the North Pole, in April 1909. But
when the two returned to the US later that year the achievement
was questioned. The credibility as witnesses of Henson and four
Inuits who accompanied Peary was doubted because they were not
white. Peary had left behind a white co-explorer 130 miles before
reaching his target.
Henson's case was a cause célèbre for black Americans for 90 years after
he was first photographed with an American flag at what was claimed to
be the top of the world. Many observers assumed that the controversy had
been laid to rest when his achievement was finally admitted only weeks
ago as America's National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson
the coveted Hubbard Medal, an honour given to Neil Armstrong and Ernest
Now Fiennes, ... says: 'Sadly, I doubt that Henson and Peary ever got to
the North Pole. It can be mathematically proved that they could not have
done it on the basis of their notes.
'There is still a question of why it took so long to acknowledge
Henson's role as an explorer. But other early explorers were never
properly acknowledged too. It has been turned into a race issue and one
where people have to be very careful about what they say.'
Fiennes's claim has infuriated supporters of Henson. 'Had he been
white,' says Bert Peary-Stafford, Peary's great- grandson, 'I don't
think there would be any question, regardless of his navigational
skills, that Peary took a reliable witness and reached the Pole. It is
only because of racist attitudes that the question of reliability has
'People use the argument that the Inuits weren't credible witnesses as
evidence of a race thing,' Fiennes told The Observer. ' They should have
qualified this position by explaining that the Inuits were ignorant of
the latitudinal and longitudinal methods of navigation. That's why they
were not credible.'
For years, Henson has been held up to black American schoolchildren as a
hero whose achievements were denied because of endemic racism in the
American establishment. He has been claimed to be a victim of the
'whitewashing' of history."
Sunday December 31, 2000 ;
by Ben Summerskill, society editor
MacMillan was a key person on the 1909 expedition. Was
MacMillan only an employee?
Henson was Peary's right hand man, his top field
assistant for 18 years in the arctic. Was he only an
From National Geographic
Awarded 90 years after Robert Bartlett (a white employee) received his
Matthew Henson was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society's highest honor: the Hubbard Medal...The honor is long overdue...The medal recognized Henson's role in several
arctic expeditions with Robert E. Peary, including their historic 1909 trek to the North Pole.
More at NGS...By Jennifer Mapes November 29, 2000...
||Ron Suskind won the
Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1995 for his
stories on Cedric Jennings, a talented black
teenager struggling to succeed in one of the worst
public high schools in Washington, D.C. Suskind has
expanded those features into a full-length
nonfiction narrative, following Jennings beyond his
high-school graduation to Brown University, and in
the tradition of Leon Dash's Rosa Lee and Alex
Kotlowitz's Trite as it may sound to say, this book
teaches a lesson about the virtue of perseverance,
and it's definitely worth reading.
|"Henson died in 1954,..."
Wrong, Henson died in 1955. In 1954 he visited
President Eisenhower in the White House.
"...after spending his later life carrying luggage and
parking cars for a living."
Henson did not spend his later life carrying luggage or parking cars.
Henson at first lectured across America about his 1909
North Pole trip, wrote his book about it in 1912, was
later appointed to a Government position in the Customs
service where he was promoted to Clerk and retired on a Civil Service pension. He
spent his later life as a distinguished member of the
Explorer's Club, and was interviewed by Lowell Thomas in
1939. Yes, the same
Lowell Thomas who made England's T.E. Lawrence famous
by calling him "Lawrence of Arabia" in his newspaper
stories that brought world wide attention to Lawrence.
Lowell Thomas interview, of Henson.
|Henson speaking at the Explorer's
Then in 1947 Henson's official biography
Companion was published which propelled him into the
"Suffering from frostbite, Peary was pulled on a
Peary was not suffering from frostbite.
10 years earlier Peary had frozen his toes.
That was 1899, not 1909. Peary learned to
compensate for a lack of toes. He ran and walked fast by
"shuffling" his feet. But he
continued to explore just fine, Ben. He mapped the
entire unknown northern tip of Greenland—a nearly fatal
journey (they almost starved to death) of well over 1,000 miles. Then
Henson & Peary came very near
the Pole (about 200 miles) during their famous 1906 expedition. Peary was in
physical shape. A really tough "old man"!
[photo: Peary/Henson 1909]
And what do you mean he was pulled
in a sled? The correct term is sledge. The sledges
were pulled by dogs. They had lots of dogs. Yes, Peary
rode on his sledge when they were near
the Pole because he said the dogs were on a gallop
and otherwise he had to run to keep up!
"Matthew Henson and his employer, Robert Peary,
Note: "employer" is used inadvertently in a racist
manner. No one ever refers to Bartlett,
MacMillan, Borup, Dr. Goodsell, etc. or any
other white team member this way. Henson had been at
Peary's side for 18 years in the arctic. Henson wanted
to reach the Pole as much as Peary did.
...claimed to have been the
first men to reach the North Pole, in April 1909.
Not "claimed", they achieved it as a fact of
history. Britain's own Royal Geographical Society
examined Peary's records and endorsed his discovery in
1910. So it has been a fact of British history since
1910. Didn't you know that, Ben?
But when the two
returned to the US later that year the achievement was questioned.
"The two?" What is that
supposed to mean? Peary returned to the US with an
entire ship of crew and expedition members. The
achievement was questioned by whom? Irresponsible newspapers? The
claim of the colossal fraud Fred Cook was questioned. Peary's claim was never doubted
by anyone knowledgeable or intelligently informed about
the 1909 expedition. The issue was that Cook claimed
he reached the Pole before Peary, it wasn't that
anyone truly thought Peary hadn't reached the Pole. Cook himself,
however, later wrote his vindictive book in which he
certainly did attack everything about Peary, his North
Pole achievement, and the men who exposed Cook as a
The credibility as witnesses of Henson and four Inuits who accompanied Peary was doubted because they were not white.
That is a really distorted
way to look at it. You blame the non-white part of the
team for a problem? No one actually doubted Peary. Peary
was a highly credible Naval officer. This credibility issue came later from
the long term negative campaign of Fred Cook
through his vindictive book, and later from his equally vindictive daughter Helene Vetters. This
witness" slur was reactivated most recently by
Sir Wally in his 1988 book that forms the basis of his current assertion that he was the first
Scotsman to reach the
North Pole. Herbert was simply reiterating Cook's 1911
slur about Peary taking "the Negro" in place of a "white
man." Recycling public domain Peary slurs is
Herbert has recommended to another anti-Peary writer.
Peary had left behind a white
co-explorer 130 miles before reaching his target."
Left behind a white co-explorer? Bartlett was supposed to go back
just like the other 18 men on the support teams
who returned to land after their work was
done. Co-explorer? Bartlett was not a co-explorer.
He was just paid help and
Peary was his employer. Get it?
"Ben, I want you to stay and write on the board 100 times..."