Preferred History

A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post that spoke to the current frenzy about “critical race theory.” The post was actually directed at defenses of confederate statutes and the confederate flag, but what really struck me was the following litany about the contents of most history classes. 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois
You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington.
You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves.
You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street.
You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”
You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals.
You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race.
You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession.
Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts.

At the conclusion of the list was the following: “Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. You have a choice. – Jim Golden”

I don’t know who Jim Golden is or was, but I think this list is an excellent illustration of what is at stake in the current fury over the teaching of history.

No history class can cover every aspect of America’s past. Selectivity is inevitable–but it is abundantly clear that the selection incorporated into most high school history texts and consuming the majority of class time in most of the nation’s schools has been wildly unbalanced. 

How many American high school students have been taught that the Civil War was about “state’s rights”? What percentage of them were ever confronted with this statement about  the genesis of the war?

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin …

The quoted paragraph is only one of several that can be found at the link–which is to an article from the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates simply assembles the official statements of the “Southern Gentlemen” who led the Confederate States into secession.

Elsewhere, I found  this one, from Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, rebutting the position of the abolitionists:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. 

The only state right that was being defended was the right to own black human beings. American students have a right to know that.

Granted, a curriculum that only included the information that is currently not being taught would be as one-sided and inaccurate as the curriculum that is still predominantly in use. What is needed is a syllabus balanced between the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly– lesson plans that accurately show students where we have been, and how far we have come–lessons that would provide them with a context for deciding how far we still have to go.

Most of the people in my age cohort didn’t learn actual history–we were spoon-fed an inaccurate, Whitewashed mythology that didn’t prepare us for the shock most of us felt when we learned the less admirable elements of our past. Thanks to the work of historians and scholars, however, we now know a great deal about those less admirable elements, and revelations continue to emerge.

All the White Nationlists’ hysteria about Critical Race Theory will not succeed in obscuring the reality of America’s Original Sin. What it doesn’t obscure is the racism that prompts it.


  1. I will again recommend the book “Black in Indiana” by local journalist Eunice Brewer Trotter; whose great-great-great-grandmother was freed only to be legally enslaved through being indentured. With the support and legal actions of her attorney, she continued her fight for freedom to the Indiana Supreme Court, the first case addressing indentured servitude in Indiana. The lives of Blacks in Indiana were no safer than that of those in the southern states.

    The elected officials who authored Indiana’s anti-slavery laws owned, sold and traded their slaves. Free Blacks and freed Blacks and the runaways caught by slave hunters were openly bought, sold and traded. Some Blacks, along with white citizens, were sold into indentured servitude for years. Our own slavery history as a “free state” was never taught in schools. Yet today; Indiana’s free Black residents remain in an unspoken form of slavery by racism which is further strengthened via gerrymandering.

    Donald Trump “freed” the hidden White Nationalist faction in this country to go public with their racism, bigotry and hate. He strengthened their hold by adding other minority groups as their targets and, if not stopped NOW, will be allowed to suppress entire areas of most states by governing with their hold on the States and United States Senates. What will be written as “Preferred History” in future history books?

  2. I am about Prof Kennedys age. We were not taught about the horrors inflicted upon the Native Americans by the European invaders that constructed and managed expansion of the USA. (Giving native Americans blankets infested with Small Pox =Chemical/biological warfare for example) Those stories should be part of any discussion surrounding race & history of the USA. Or maybe it already is, and if so, disregard.

  3. At least in my Baby Boomer history a decidedly pro-nationalist history was taught in grade school and high school. It was a fairy tale of after some struggles, “All’s well, That ends Well” the bitter struggles were glossed over and in particular the resistance by what we call today the 1% or the Oligarchy was ignored.

    Concurrently, in American History was slavery, Jim Crow, the wars against Native Americans and the suppression of the labor movement to unionize the working class.

    The false equivalence of the Neo-Confederates has posted Memes on Face Book. One of their Memes concerns the preservation of the Nazi concentration camps and death camps as a part of history, some how they want to justify keeping the Confederate Monuments as part of history. Statues of the Confederate generals and politicians were erected to glorify them.

    We still have many of our Army Forts named after Confederate Generals. I tend to view the Confederate Generals and Politicians in the same light as Benedict Arnold.

  4. Sheila’s excellent look at how history is taught with a Southern flavor is matched in how economics is taught with a capitalist flavor in how this discipline is being taught. Thus Greed is Good, the people have demanded right to work laws and lower wages, all unions are corrupt etc.

    Sheila is right with her recommendation that we engage in an honest look at the application of historicity, or historical authenticity, an area I have often discussed with a good friend and brilliant historian and retired archivist of the Truman Library, who had the task of defending a president who dropped atomic bombs on Japan while simultaneously carrying out the New Deal initiatives of FDR, speaking of yin and yang.

    We have work to do, not (for instance) only in teaching the subtle understandings of the economics discipline by the Pikettys and Stiglitzes of this world, but how we shall flavor such transfer of information, and I think that Sheila’s suggestion has application to every discipline, including new innovative disciplines in the AI world.

  5. It has ben said that the winners write the history books. That does make sense, since the winners, to date, have been white men so the outcome of the Civil War didn’t matter so much.

  6. Well done. In addiction to Eunice Trotter’s book I recommend These Truths by Jill Lepore which re-examines US history through the lens of slavery and quite accurately shows the continuing influence of racist attitudes on our politics. Might be worth mentioning that in learning about Helen Keller we got the watered-down version of her life and accomplishment. Read about her in Lies My Teacher told me for a real look at the woman.

  7. Few US law schools teach Somerset v. Stuart, the 1773 English decision that freed the black Somerset, purchased by Stuart in Boston, while transported to England, where Lord Mansfield ruled slavery had not been established by positive law; therefore, Somerset must be freed.

    Did this decision put America’s Founding Father’s on notice that once colonies became English soil, slavery would be void?

  8. I am a retired high school history teacher, 36 years ago in fact, so teaching has changed. During the time that I was teaching, text books were renewed every 5 years. Classroom teachers were assigned the task of choosing one of those 4 0r 5 texts that were to be used for the next five years. We had no voice in what the content of the book would be.

  9. From the Tampa Bay Times, written by Geveryl Robinson who teaches at USF, imagining future history teaching in FL:

    In 1619, lovely gentlemen from America, a place they discovered that was already inhabited, went to Africa and took many of them back to America. Without any coercion or hesitation, the Africans left their homeland and shackled themselves in the bottom of a cruise ship called the White Lion.

    The trip was glorious, and the Africans were delighted. For fun, many of them practiced diving off the side of the ship into the ocean. Others got sick, and many died, but people die on cruise ships every year, so it was not a big deal.

    When the Africans arrived in America, they were met by wonderful people who decided to call them slaves, keep them in chains, and separate them from their families, just for fun. Massa, as these people were called, treated the slaves as three-fifths of a human being, but that was only because Massa did not want the slaves to get too uppity. “Pride goeth before destruction,” and Massa did not want the slaves to be destroyed.

    The slaves had a life filled with wonder. They got to pick cotton until their fingers bled, and they were even whipped, which is not as bad as it sounds once you understand that most of the whippings rendered them unconscious because of the pain, so they couldn’t feel a thing. Later, some people wanted the slaves to be free, so they fought a Civil War. The Confederates (Massa and his people) allowed the Union to win the war. It doesn’t get more civil than that.

    Years later, a wonderful Christian organization called the Ku Klux Klan was formed. Now, the KKK as they were called, were sharp dressers. They wore incredible white robes with hoods, and they were kind to the former slaves, who now called themselves Negroes. Whenever the KKK went to a Negro household, they would burn amazing crosses in their yards and bomb their homes. It was a beautiful light show that could be seen by all the neighbors.

    And sometimes, the KKK would even take the Negroes out of their homes and expose them to nature by hanging them from trees. It was a family affair, and the crowds would even sing beautiful hymns during the hangings like Hang low, you Neeeegroes.

    The Negroes had something called a Civil Rights Movement that focused on giving them the same rights as everyone else. Sure, they had to go to separate schools, restaurants, hospitals, bathrooms, etc., but that was for their own good. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leaders who spent a lot of time dreaming and talking about voting rights for Negroes. He unfortunately got in the way of bullets and died, but Black people (that is what they call themselves now) are still fighting for voting rights.

    However, their ancestors weren’t born here. Neither were the ancestors of those who brought them here, but that’s beside the point. After all, whoever steers the ship makes the rules.

    Geveryl Robinson is an instructor of English at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

  10. Sorry I won’t be around to read the history that’s taught 100 years from now about how looting is a justified means of protesting, how blacks had no choice but to murder their own in numbers that far surpass lynching’s or enslavement, and how they single handedly turned a nation away from interest in the Olympics and other sports to protest racism that doesn’t exist. Jussie Smollett had to go hire two black people because he couldn’t find any white people to commit a hate crime on him.
    People with real human rights problems risk their life every day to come here because it’s still the land of opportunity.. unless of course you want to be a victim. The new american dream is ‘be a victim, get a check.’
    I guess white people are the only ones whose ancestors enslaved and murdered people. That’s just amazing how that happened.

  11. If we do not tell the truth about our history, we will be doomed to repeat it. And so we have.

    The above list is quite revealing regarding our white washed education. And, I believe, that if teachers had more power to teach the truth about our history and to do so though the books do not, our children could learn more from the past.

    We still have slavery in the prison population given many of them work for next to nothing and most of them are people of color. I have been told by activists for prison reform that many of those who work in Indiana prisons are white supremacists and that they spit in the food they serve to people of color.

    What we have done to Native Americans and African-Americans is viewed today as morally reprehensible. People used the Bible to justify genocide and slavery. For me the question is why did some of the African tribal leaders, collude with the slave traders? Did white people inflame the divisiveness between different tribes? Were tribal leaders told that the slaves would be freed after a certain period of time?

    Let us also not forget what was done to the indigenous people of S. America by Spaniards. Let us not forget the civil rights activists of the Latino community. Even today those who harvest our fruits and vegetables are treated poorly. And immigrants put up with working conditions.

    Immigrants take jobs we don’t want. A dentist who sounded like she was from S. Africa stabilized a broken tooth for me. She was the only dentist providing dental care at this emergency dental facility. She works 15 hours straight. When does she eat or go to the bathroom? I had to wait 4 hours. I wonder if her pay is much lower than dentists in private practice.

    And then I think of all the people who are working without a livable wage. To me, the corporate oligarchy has created a new form of slavery in which the poor are kept poor. Why are those who work for Disney having to get food stamps while the CEO is a multi-millionaire?

    Years ago I read that in Salem the hallucinogen ergotamine had most likely grown upon the grain crops which led to strange behavior of some of its citizens. Hence, the witch trials. As I said before, ignorance is not bliss.

    Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.
    We cannot change what America did yesterday but we can learn and evolve from it toward becoming a nation that is truly a land of the free where all have equal protection under the law. And in my own small way, not only do I keep learning the truth about our past, I seek to treat everyone with respect regardless of their race, nationality, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation. And yes, I support reparations. No justice, no peace.

  12. During Lincoln’s inauguration speech, he expressed support for the Corwin Amendment which would have amended the Constitution to permanently protect the institution of slavery. So to say the Civil War was only about slavery from the beginning is misleading. Lincoln was ready to concede the issue of slavery from the outset of the war. It was only later on that ending the institution of slavery became the paramount issue for the North.

  13. Lester, thank you for that article. It was both a fun read, and scary to think that some people actually want that taught.

    patmcc – As for biological warfare – there is a single instance in the historical record, during the French and Indian War – One suggestion to infect the Indians, one statement of giving two blankets and one handkerchief from a smallpox ward, and no evidence that it worked. Smallpox had already spread through the Indian community.

    Now, for the litany of other atrocities visited upon the Indians by the settlers/European governments/American government, well there is a wealth of information that didn’t make it into the history books I grew up reading. Volumes could be devoted to that.

  14. For years, textbook content nationally has been determined by what passes muster in Texas – a huge consumer of textbooks. Two Christian conservatives (Mel and Mrs. Gabler – can’t recall her first name) there organized parental censors at the state level and in other states to gain appointment to state textbook adoption panels. Then local schools could pick from among the textbooks approved by the state and thus were cheaper due to the higher volume of approved publications. These organized censors would not approve content they deemed too liberal, too multi-cultural, too un-Christian, too worker or union friendly, and insufficiently patriotic or capitalistic.

    Since Texas was one of the largest textbook customers in the nation, textbook publishers sought to please rather than fight the controlling Texans. The rest of the nation marched to the Texas textbook tunes for decades.

    Textbook publishers did finally begin to market to the rest of the nation, including with adoption of the Common Core standards in most states. Creators of the Common Core insisted that their intent was not to create a national curriculum, but textbook publishers did start modifying content to reflect the new standards adopted by 44 states, but the major emphasis was on English/language arts and math. We still have a very long way to go to on history.

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