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The History Wars
Why The Stakes Are So High
When I taught history in the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s, I remember various conflicts over curriculum that became very heated. There were the “reading wars” of the 70s and 80s which became politicized along with the more recent “math wars,” mostly due to the Common Core standards.
People drew battle lines in these conflicts and used them to promote their conservative or liberal agendas. For many it wasn’t a matter of what was best for kids, but more about being ‘right’ at the expense of the other side. In local schools, we just kept right on educating and caring for kids.
Today we are engaged in a battle that makes these earlier curricular conflicts look like a pre-school picnic. Now it is the “History Wars.” I will suggest that this time there is plenty at stake.
The 1619 Project
The publication of the 1619 Project in 2019, was the catalyst and the first shot across the bow in the history wars.
It wasn’t long after that critics and detractors began the deconstruction of some of the claims made by Nicole Hannah Jones and the other authors of that monumental work. The analysis was not always without some justification. Some historians took to task a few of the historical details such as the relationship between the institution of slavery and the Revolutionary War. Others took issue with the general attempt to reset the “origin story” of the United States and tie it to slavery in 1619.
But the Project was not designed to be the final word. Jones indicated that her hope was that it would start a conversation. But rather than a conversation, the right-wing, and especially the Christian right picked up the “conversation” as an opportunity to ban things….it seems to be their favorite pastime, especially when they feel threatened.
From that moment on, reactionary forces in Republican politics have picked up this banner of banning the 1619 Project and going further, passing laws against the teaching of “critical race theory” even though there was no evidence that it was being taught in schools. In the past few years, Republicans have tried to run the ball farther up the field by passing laws that forbid the teaching of any topic that makes white students feel bad about being white.
Where is it written that history must make you feel okay about yourself? For 30 years I never taught history with that goal in mind.
It is important to understand what is going on in this conflict. The forces of conservatism are working to keep the teaching of history, white-centered. Whiteness never likes to take second place to any other group.
The truth is, that the teaching of history in the United States has always been white-centered.
All textbooks and curricula have always been white versions of American history, and the story that it has taught us about ourselves is that we are a white-dominated country and the reason we are “great” is because we are a white-dominated country. To accept any other narrative that de-centers whiteness is a threat to the whole ideology of whiteness. That is the threat of the 1619 Project and other curricula that teach the truth about America’s past, and that is why the reaction is so vehement.
White supremacists have always understood that controlling the education of young people, particularly history, is the only assurance of continued white dominance. A person can easily understand why enslavers of the 19th century in the American South wanted to keep their enslaved property from learning how to read and write. The same objective is being pursued by white supremacists today.
Douglass, Du Bois, Baldwin
Reading three of the greatest writers in the last 150 years, you can understand why education was denied to Blacks. Reading the works of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin, it is clear that white supremacy feared education. It feared the truth of history.
Enslavers knew that if their enslaved property were to learn to read and write, enslavement would come to an end. Segregationists knew that if they were to allow black children to have the same quality of education that their white children had, then segregation would have to come to an end.
And white supremacists of today know that if they do not ban books, control the history that is taught in schools, and replace it with right-wing, white supremacist propaganda, then their days of domination will end.
Since white supremacy can’t deny education to all residents in the country today, they are doing the next best thing. Trying to control the content. It isn’t a new tactic.
Southern revisionists replaced a true account of the Civil War and Reconstruction period with a white-washed and white-sanitized version called “The Lost Cause.” It was an attempt to justify the insurrection of Southern states and sanitize its cause. By 1900, Confederate monuments were popping up across the South to support and justify the “Lost Cause” narrative.
But listen to the eloquent words of Du Bois, who could see right through the veneer of respectability and the shroud of lies.
It is the punishment of the South that it's Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome, and wellborn. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswervingly revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation has ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel-not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.
This moral clarity and eloquence, born of an educated and well-trained mind, was certain to be feared by white supremacy. Du Bois was one of the most important voices of the Jim Crow era to call out white supremacy for what it was and is today. He is one of the reasons white supremacy seeks to control the educational systems of the country.
Consider this excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography in which he describes his opportunity to read and write. It is a word picture of how the world can be opened up to those who are truly able to comprehend the written word and its truths and how much of a threat it was to enslavers.
I lived in Master Hugh’s family about seven years. During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher. My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct me, had, in compliance with the advice and direction of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but had set her face against my being instructed by anyone else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say of her, that she did not adopt this course of treatment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute.
She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.
It was apparently in that moment of stark terror when the mistress's husband discovered she was teaching Frederick to read that he put a quick end to it. He chided her and forbade her to continue, knowing what danger lay ahead if she continued. He dragged her into the depths of his own depravity by denying the ability of literacy to an enslaved person. The degradation of her character was manifested and described in detail by Douglass. Whiteness never wants people to discover the truth.
Perhaps no other writer could expose the poverty and self-imposed blindness that whiteness creates than James Baldwin, writing in the 1960s. Baldwin’s prose and elegant use of language capture the fear that whiteness has when true and accurate history is revealed. Baldwin writes,
White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand….Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” He goes on to say, “People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.
How much more accurately or astutely could anyone describe the current “History War” that American culture finds itself engaged in today?
The DeSantis-Reynolds crowd wants a history that flatters them and allows them to feel better about their whiteness. They are impaled on their own narrow view of white history so that they cannot see the whole world beyond white-Eurocentric history. They are feeding on a lie, a distortion, and an illusion of what past American history has been. It has created enormous personal incoherence, and this incoherence will extend to our children should DeSantis and Reynolds have their way.
They want to use Prager U materials. Prager U is neither a university nor is it a history think tank. It is a conservative, propaganda mill designed to indoctrinate students in a white-centered, and white-heroic history. They put out videos and materials to promote a “patriotic history.” Once history is preceded by the adjective “patriotic” it is no longer history, it is propaganda.
History is not meant to create patriots, rogues, revolutionaries, socialists, conservatives, or liberals. History is there to help us learn the truth about our shared past, understand who we are considering our past and where we are headed, and make the decisions we need to make to change or determine a new or different outcome. History helps guide us to become our highest selves and to live up to our highest aspirations. But reckoning with the truth of our past is part of the process of “doing” history.
The history wars are not just about who wins. It is about whether truth will prevail. It is about developing coherence in our vision and direction of where we are headed based on a clear view of our shared past.
It is time to de-center whiteness in history. It is time to create a multiracial view of history that includes everyone.