History, what could be simpler? Things happen, they get written down, and we read about it. For instance, the Boston Tea Party was an act of piracy, the revolution was a “criminal enterprise.” Not so fast, you say? This may have been the historical take of the British, but it misconstrues the noble acts of self-determination and free speech that is the “real” story of that conflict.
Or consider the Spanish American War, a war that gave the Cubans a new American despot to replace the old Spanish one, along with a war in the Philippines that was instigated by racist U.S. troops and policies that incited Filipinos to revolt to gain their freedom from mistreatment. Doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because the American view of that “splendid little war”, as the contemporary U.S. Secretary of State referred to it, was one of a war that put America’s might on the world stage, freeing Cubans and Filipinos from the unjust rule of Spain.
Most Americans know the story of Custer’s last stand, a military battle where bad leadership led to the death of an entire invading force of U.S. cavalry; we all learned about it in school. But schools haven’t focused so much on the earlier Washita massacre when Custer and his troops wiped out a peaceful encampment of men, women and children in spite of their prominent display of a white flag of surrender.
Most Americans have heard about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, a desperate act during which 50 or so whites were killed. But our history books haven’t spent much time on the Greenwood massacre. Tulsa, Oklahoma, whites resented the prosperity of their black neighbors in Greenwood. After a botched lynching, a mob of whites attacked the entire town of Greenwood, shooting, burning, and even dropping gasoline bombs from airplanes. Between 150 to 300 Black residents were murdered, and 36 city blocks were burned to the ground. Little wonder that this story hasn’t gotten much attention from the dominant white culture.
Stories in history don’t tell themselves. They are recorded and filtered by those who do the writing. Americans have been fed history as told by the political and military victors, through the eyes and pens of white men. Americans don’t want their stories to be formulated through a foreign lens. Likewise those who aren’t white men notice how their very real stories have not been part of American history as it has traditionally been taught, and have decided that it it is time to change that paradigm.
In the past few decades, previously ignored voices have begun to speak up for being accurately included in the American story. Women have demanded recognition for their great scientific and educational achievements for which white men received credit. Black Americans are demanding that racist and dismissive views that have prevailed for so long in our national discourse be amended to reflect the true lives and times of Black Americans and the real role they have played in our country’s history. Native Americans are declaring that broken and dishonored treaties between sovereign nations matter, whether it is Russia who breaks them or, as in the case with native Americans, the American government itself. LGBTQ folks are demanding historical acknowledgment that they have always been valuable, if not always valued, members of human society.
So why does the inclusion of hard facts provoke such an outcry from the right wing of American thinking? Why are so many white Americans afraid to have students learn that the GI Bill, which gave a leg up to World War II veterans, only gave that help to white men, spiting the thousands of Blacks who fought honorably in that war? Why are people incensed that our children may learn about federal housing policy that denied loans and advancement to Blacks well into the end of the 1900s and, in the case of Black farmers, access to federal loans right up until recent years? Why do we not want children to learn that the Homestead Act stole land from its native inhabitants and gave that land, 160 acres at a time, to white male settlers (kinda like a free lunch) over a period of decades?
No one would expect white Americans to enjoy reading this history, but not that many people expect to enjoy algebra either. The value of history isn’t whether it makes you feel good or not. Its value is to help us understand our place in the world and how it has come to be that way. If we choose a Disney fantasy version of history while ignoring so much of the real thing, then we set ourselves up for the misery and struggles that emanate from a society that doesn’t understand why so many of its citizens are fed up, outraged, defiant and unwilling to go along with the fairy tale any longer.
One recurring complaint about including these inconvenient facts and stories in our educational system is that “they are just trying to lay a guilt trip on our children” (read: on us parents). But guilt, like shame, is something we bring upon ourselves. If a person misses a plane flight that then crashes, killing all on board, that person may well feel “survivor’s guilt.” But the plane didn’t crash to make them feel guilty. The other people didn’t make the flight on time, making the survivor feel guilty. We can no more blame the plane for the guilt felt than we can blame the facts in our history that put our racist policies and attitudes on display for study and reflection. Guilt and shame just prevent appropriate responses and actions.
If we care about living up to our ideals of freedom, equality and equal opportunity, then we had better start braving the facts as they are, not as how we’d wish them to be. And for those who would just as soon maintain racist and misogynist attitudes in order to preserve white supremacy in the governing of the nation, a word of warning. Demographics and a growing cultural consciousness make it clear that no matter how many election results you deny or how many voters you suppress, white supremacy is on the wane. Do you want its story to end with at least a modicum of self-understanding and reflection? Or do you want it to go down like a Hitler in his bunker, raging against imagined enemies until the bitter end?