If We Desire Racial Equality, We Need To Change the Way We Teach American History

During the third night of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debate of 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered a declarative statement to finally quell speculation that he was in favor of racial assimilation:

“There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position to the white race.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1858.

For racial justice to become a reality, we cannot ignore the need to change the way we teach American history.

Without a doubt, Lincoln was a shrewd political operator and man of praise-worthy moral principles, and as President, he led our divided country through one of the darkest chapters of our republic’s history. But he was also a product of his environment. Lincoln was a proponent of Colonization, a segregationist effort to free slaves and fund their transport back to Africa.

I don’t reveal this information to denigrate Lincoln’s legacy, but to make a point about the complex realities and dangers of historical revisionism. Lincoln’s support of Colonization is endemic of a larger historical narrative of racist ideology being used to combat racist power structures.

A first-time exposure to these ideas can be jarring (and invoke an emotional response), and I believe a lot of that blowback is a consequence of how we teach history in America.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, historian James Loewen writes about how deification, hero-worship, and mythologizing has produced a toothless and neutered history of America that renders the complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities of our past into fables designed to teach grade-school students a moral lesson.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, history is viewed as the “most valuable subject” by only 8% of Americans.

As many people have mentioned over the past couple of weeks, the fight against racial inequality and injustice begins with awareness and education. And, for most Americans, an education in history begins in the classroom. Unfortunately, the way in which we teach American history lends itself to a need to be “re-educated” later on in life. It doesn’t have to be this way.

A lot of the fault lies at the impossible standards and canned curriculums forced upon teachers by state-mandated standardized testing. Another issue is the textbook industry itself, which far too often bows to partisan pressure and influence in an effort to maintain a place on a state’s curriculum list.

But, as the adage goes, “history is written by the victors.” And that is clearly revealed in the historical omissions in our public school textbooks. For example:

The first slave ship arrived in the Americas in 1619 — one year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. The brutal and financially lucrative Atlantic Slave Trade — which fueled our nation’s economy and labor force for centuries — is often reduced to a definition to be memorized for an upcoming exam.

And while many schoolchildren in America are taught the apocryphal fable that President George Washington’s teeth were made from wood, the truth is far grimmer: It’s very likely our first President’s dentures were made from the extracted teeth of his slaves

Following a massive slave revolt in Haiti in 1804, slave owners in America reacted swiftly to quell any similar uprisings among their “property.” The 2nd Amendment did not originally apply to slaves or recently-freed slaves. In 1831, slave Nat Turner led a violent rebellion against white plantation owners in Virginia. The rebellion was squashed a few weeks later, and white mobs beat and executed more than 100 black non-participants to discourage any more rebellions.

White violence in the name of liberation was fetishized and glorified, while black violence in the name of liberation was demonized and criminalized— a racist contextualization that continues to this day. Or, in the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.”

Following the Civil War and the Great Emancipation, Confederate veterans serving as politicians established “Black Codes” that punished recently-freed slaves for violating vague social decorums and restricted their ability to work. Convict leasing programs effectively relegalized slavery in the South and didn’t end until 1928.

During the Lousiana Colfax Massacre of 1873, 150 black men and women were shot and executed while defending their right to vote on Easter Sunday at the country courthouse.

Between 1889 and 1929, someone was lynched in the United States every four days.

The first film screen at the White House was The Birth of a Nation, a pro-segregation film that depicted black people as unintelligent and sexually aggressive and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.

“It is like writing history with lightning,” said President Woodrow Wilson after the screening. “And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

In 1921, white supremacists firebombed and destroyed an area of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street,” killing more than 300 black people and leaving thousands homeless. (This event was vividly dramatized by the HBO series Watchmen in 2019).

As a result of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934 to dole out private home mortgages to help lift the country out of the Great Depression. From 1934 to 1968, 98% of home loans were given exclusively to white families. In other words, in the single greatest redistribution of wealth in America’s history, the black community was almost completely excluded.

Beginning in 1934, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted an experiment where – under the guise of free healthcare – observed, rather than treated, the effects of syphilis on more than 600 black men. The infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” did not end until the experiment revealed in 1972.

After World War II, black Americans who fought for our country were denied the benefits of the GI Bill, a piece of legislation designed to honor servicemen and help them prosper with the assistance of interest-free loans.

Most statues of Confederate “heroes” were erected in Southern cities during periods of racial progress by the Daughters of the Confederacy, an all-women organization dedicated to promoting the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South.

In 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was not a series of peaceful marches and speeches about loving each other. It was an era filled with bombings, assassinations, riots, vigilante “justice,” and state-sanctioned police violence and torture (watch the film 2014 Selma). In 1967, the city of Detroit was occupied by the U.S. military to quell one of the most destructive riots the country had ever seen (watch the 2017 film Detroit).

When the .30–06 rifle bullet impacted an inch below Martin Luther King Jr.’s right cheekbone, he was considered one of the most hated public figures in America. It was only after a week of riots following his death that the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was finally signed into law.

On May 13, 1985, police used helicopters to bomb a MOVE compound in an East Philadelphia neighborhood. During the 90-minute engagement, police officers fired more than 10,000 rounds into the Black activist organization’s headquarters. The bombs ignited a fire, and the predominantly black neighborhood burned to the ground, killing 11 people (including five children) and destroying 65 homes.

It’s far better to equip America’s youth with the historical reality of our nation’s sins than infuse them with masturbatory patriotism through revisionist propaganda. You can still be proud of your country and be aware of its past and present moral failings. To paraphrase Dan Rather, patriotism is rooted in humility and courage, while nationalism is rooted in arrogance and ignorance.

We cannot adequately respond to the present without reckoning with the past. And you cannot reckon with past or adequately respond to the present without first being made aware of the past.

And this is a real shame because an honest education in history can be so damn compelling. When we teach history as a collection of “agreed upon” facts, we’re robbing the historical narrative of conflicting perspectives, motivations, and personalities that make the study of history so fascinating.

Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”

What better way to ground that truth than by teaching the good, bad, and ugly of American history?

Framing our history as a titanic struggle between good and evil populated solely by the morally righteous and unrighteous is not only grossly inaccurate and mind-numbingly boring, it’s unjust and fails to equip American students with the context necessary to grapple with the complex realities of America’s unwinding social fabric.

In an Atlantic article titled “The Problem With History Class,” historian Michael Conway writes,

“Students must be prepared to confront divisiveness, not conditioned to shoehorn agreement into situations where none is possible. When conflict is accepted rather than resisted, it becomes possible for different conceptions of American history to co-exist. There is no longer a need to appoint a victor.”

However, education begins in the home. Pick up a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Reader’s Edition by James Loewen & Rebecca Stefoff and Stamped by Jason Reyolds & Ibram Kendi, and read them with your kids. And petition your state’s Board of Education and local school districts to be brave enough to teach a more comprehensive history of America that incorporates more perspectives from indigenous people and people of color.

The stakes are higher than the standardized testing scores. As Roman philosopher George Santayana writes, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

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2 thoughts on “If We Desire Racial Equality, We Need To Change the Way We Teach American History

  1. Yes, yes, and yes.
    As a lover of history and retired educator, your words totally align with my understanding. I remember the chaos of the 60s and watched the red flames of Detroit burning from my bedroom window. I’m still hoping to see a time of peace and acceptance if only in my own family.

    Like

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