Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” Despite that definition, I love history. I even once considered dropping my legal career to become a history teacher. But I couldn’t force myself to take the vow of poverty that would require.
Sadly, some people think studying history is a thing of the past. Or, as Bismarck once said, “History is simply a piece of paper covered with print; the main thing is still to make history, not write it.”
But I feel differently.
In his book 1984, George Orwell taught that whoever controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past. So, who is trying to control the present? Perhaps many persons and groups, but one obvious choice is our politicians, especially the extreme elements of both parties. So, if Orwell is correct, how we teach history becomes critical to our future.
Last September, when Texas passed a law prohibiting the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in public schools, I became interested. Critical Race Theory is the concept that the founding of the United States is so intertwined with slavery that it led to inherent inequality and institutionalized racism that impact people of color today. The theory grew out of The 1619 Project, The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning project that examines slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of U.S. history. Or, as The 1619 Project creator, Nikole Hannah Jones, describes it:
“As a woman in my 40s, I am part of the first generation of Black Americans in the history of the United States to be born in a society in which Black people had full rights of citizenship. Yet, in that brief span of time, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination, and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of legal discrimination that followed, Black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans. Our struggles and strivings have made America more fair and more just. And as much democracy as we have, it has been born of Black resistance. In other words, the very people who were never supposed to be a part of our democracy have played the most pivotal role in creating it. So what if America, finally, after 400 years, realizes that Black people have never been the problem, but the solution.”
Texas is not alone in frowning upon Critical Race Theory. As of last year, at least 16 states had banned or restricted teaching it in public schools; 19 other states have pending legislation.
So, what does Texas law prohibit? Interestingly, the law does not use the term “Critical Race Theory.” But it does state that a teacher or school administrator may not “require an understanding of the 1619 Project.” But how can we understand our history without understanding Black Americans’ roles in establishing and developing the United States?
Does this mean a Texas history teacher cannot teach that slavery began in America before the United States existed? On the contrary, the first enslaved people landed in Jamestown in 1619, even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Can we teach that, in 1636, we built our first slave ship, the Desire? We made that ship in Massachusetts, not Virginia or a state in the deep South. The next three slave ships built in America were the Fortune, Hope, and Prosperity. And so, from the beginning, can we teach that Americans associated slavery with economic advancement?
Can we teach that the third verse of the National Anthem celebrates the capture and murder of enslaved people with the words, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave?” Perhaps that is not surprising when we consider that its author, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and owner of enslaved persons, once prosecuted a man for possessing abolitionist literature. Scott, a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., sought the death penalty in United States v. Reuben Crandall. In Key’s closing argument to the jury, he said: “Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you and occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro?”
Can we teach that Twelve U.S. Presidents owned enslaved persons?
Can we teach that, by 1835, cotton from the labor of enslaved persons equaled 55 percent of all U.S. exports? By 1860, the yearly cotton production was 2.3 billion pounds, 60 percent of U.S. exports. Four million enslaved persons performed that labor. Their value? $3.5 billion, equating to $100 billion in today’s money.
Can we teach that, during the Civil War, the mayor of New York City advocated exiting the Union? However, he did not want New York to join the Confederacy but to maintain neutrality because of the financial wealth brought to the city due to the cotton trade and insurance underwritten to finance and protect slaveholders. The city received $200 million from cotton alone in that time’s currency.
Can we teach that, in the 1860s, Texas tried to pass legislation requiring school teachers to teach that slavery was a side issue of the Civil War? But its secession statement said Texas left the Union because “the servitude of the African Race, as existing in these states, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”
Can we teach our students about “Whipped Peter,” whose life is portrayed in the recent movie, Emancipation[i]? Here is my favorite scene from the film:
This photo of Whipped Peter became a symbol of the cruelty, more often than not, inflicted upon enslaved persons:
Could we at least acknowledge Black Africans’ contributions to the Union army? By the war’s end, some 180,000 Black Africans had joined the Union army or about ten percent of the total. But unfortunately, about 40,000 of them died in the war.
Can we teach that, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the country’s first Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in housing, schools, public transportation, and jury service? Unfortunately, that decision led to a series of laws and policy decisions by federal, state, and local governments that promoted racial discrimination in housing and banking, as illustrated in this clip from the film, The Banker[ii]:
Can we teach that, between 1877 and 1950, there were 4,400 verified racially motivated lynchings and killings in America? Yet, it was not until last year that lynchings became outlawed by federal law. One of these killings was of Elmore Bolling, who, a Chicago newspaper reported, was killed because “he was a marked man since he was rated by whites as too successful to be a Negro.”
Can we tell students about the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the KKK and a symbol of white supremacy in the South. The movie, Selma,[iii] portrays what happened on that bridge in March 1965:
And the list goes on and on. There were many more things about our racial history that no one taught me in school. To learn about some of these, I urge you to watch the documentary, Who We Are.[iv]
The Texas law also prohibits any teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” or that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” But what if a student feels this way when they learn history? Do we then terminate that history teacher?
I like what Jeffrey Robinson, the Deputy Legal Director of the National ACLU, said in his documentary, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America:
“Slavery is not our fault. We didn’t do it. We did not cause it. It’s not our responsibility. But it is our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of it than it was, then we are denying who we really are, and we are impeding our ability to truly move forward as a community or as a nation.”
About a year ago, I took three Implicit Association Tests. I didn’t like the results. The tests did not accurately reflect me, or so I thought. So, this past week I retook it. Sadly, the results were the same. And so, according to these tests administered by Harvard University, I have implicit biases against African Americans, Muslims, and fat people.
What is implicit bias? It’s a tendency to favor one group of people over another without a valid reason behind it. But wait! I consciously try to avoid racial and other stereotypes. But perhaps that’s the point of the tests. If an implicit association test reveals that we might have implicit biases, that might encourage us to think before we speak, act and even think about others.
Take the challenge; I dare you. The results might surprise you. Here is a link to the test:
Is the test accurate? According to Practical Psychology, the Implicit Association Test “is not considered the perfect measurement of implicit bias or prejudice throughout the country, but it may offer some insight into how we associate groups of people with different traits, behaviors, and feelings.”
As I think about my upbringing, I can see how implicit biases might have crept into my subconsciousness. For example, I never saw an African American in person until I was in the eighth grade. I still don’t know if I have met a practicing Muslim, and I saw at an early age that beautiful people with perfect bodies, as reflected in the media, had enormous advantages over those that didn’t fit the mold.
But the more I learn about history—our history—and the more I know about myself, the more I am inclined to stop and think before I say, do, or champion something that others might see as unfair or discriminatory. That is something I believe all of us must do more of if we expect this nation to survive. Or, as historian John Toland said, “It is human nature that repeats itself, not history.”
I hope that one day, human nature can change for the better.
- Production Companies: Apple TV+, CAA Media Finance, and Escape Artists
- Director: Antoine Fuqua
- Screenwriter: Bill Collage
- Starring: Will Smith, Ben Foster, and Charmaine Bingwa
- Release Date: December 9, 2022
- Streaming on Apple TV+
[ii] The Banker:
- Production Companies: Romulus Entertainment, Hyphenate Films, and Iam21 Entertainment
- Director: George Nolfi
- Screenwriters: Niceole R. Levy, George Nolfi, and David Lewis Smith
- Starring: Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Nicholas Hoult
- Release Date: March 20, 2020
- Streaming on Apple TV+
- Production Companies: Pathé, Harpo Films, Plan B Entertainment
- Director: Ava DuVernay
- Screenwriter: Paul Webb
- Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Oprah Winfrey
- Release Date: January 9, 2015
- Streaming on Showtime
[iv] Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America:
- Production Company: Off Center Media
- Directors: Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler
- Screenwriter: Jeffery Robinson
- Starring: Josephine Bolling McCall, Gwen Carr, and Tiffany Crutcher
- Release Date: March 17, 2021
- Streaming on Netflix