I don’t remember the exact words he used, but something I learned from my father was the link between history and current events. If you want to understand the world, to be able to read current events with insight, take the time to understand the history.
This sounds so obvious, but it is a necessary reminder in a society that has struggled to learn how to remember and tell its history in a meaningful, truthful, and transformative way. No where is this more obvious in the US experience then in its observance of Black History Month.
“History is Boring”
Boston University welcomes students visiting their website who are interested in history with a page dedicated to dispelling myths of studying history. The first myth, and probably the one I encounter the most in conversations, is that “History is boring.”
“Maybe you had awkward experiences in high school. You assume history is going to be all names and dates and ‘one damned thing after another,’ as the saying goes. Maybe, like Virginia Woolf, you’ve concluded that history is too much about old men and their wars or that it is ‘more or less bunk,’ as Henry Ford proclaimed. (Then again, Ford also called physical exercise bunk, so he might not be the best authority.)”
I can certainly understand the aversion. My experience of history in public schools was largely negative, with a few bright points that had more to do with the idiosyncrasies of our teachers than any fascination with the content. And the content itself was often presented in a way that made it difficult to be interesting, with a focus more on memorizing dates than understanding how the story of humanity had unfolded.
Too often, the books were incomplete; they were missing key voices and perspectives, and even justified or promoted injustice, violence, and oppression. Usually, there wasn’t anyone in those stories that I could recognize, except for the people at the bottom who existed mainly to get crushed.
When it came to White supremacy, the content was basically nonexistent. And probably the only thing more invisible than the existence and cruelty of White supremacy was the existence of people who were not White and their contributions to history and society.
“Textbooks Were Like Syringes”
This trend is well-documented in books like James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and in teaching resources like the Zinn Education Project. But we are continuing to get a fuller picture of just how wrong our history textbooks have been.
Donald Yacovone is an historian who co-authored The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. back in 2013. A few years ago, he was researching another project when he came across a collection of about 3,000 US history textbooks. Encountering those books led him to a different project, a book that is scheduled for publication in September 2022 and titled Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.
In an interview with The Harvard Gazette, Yacovone noted the trends in how these textbooks talked about White Supremacy, slavery, racism, and civil rights. To begin, early texts barely dealt with the institution of slavery, did not typically mention African Americans, and spoke about Black people in “extremely derogatory” ways, which Yacovone found shocking for a textbook. This trend showed that the writers of these textbooks “defined ‘American’ as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American.”
Before the Civil War, textbooks followed a strict format that supported a political and Euro-centric narrative: exploration, colonization, revolution, creation of the republic, “and then every succeeding presidential administration.” The Reconstruction period saw some divergence from that strict format with its exclusion on non-White people in history, but that “dramatic change” was short-lived. As Yacovone put it, “the ‘Lost Cause’ mythology takes over academia and white supremacy reappears with full force.” By this, he means that, from the 1920s through the 1940s, textbooks are characterized by “positive assessments of slavery” that “taught that the African American’s natural environment was the institution of slavery, where they were cared for from cradle to grave.” The “legacy of African American writing about freedom” was not recognized by “the white power structure”. Instead, slave narratives were deemed propaganda, African history before slavery was erased, and the work of Black scholars, such as W.E.B. DuBois, was ignored. This remained common until at least the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement forced “a gradual reintroduction of the African American element in history textbooks.” (ibid)
Yacovone used a powerful analogy: “White supremacy is a toxin. The older history textbooks were like syringes that injected the toxin of white supremacy into the mind of many generations of Americans.” (ibid) And while there has been improvement, it is also obvious that these issues remain unresolved and contentious today. In 2020, the New York Times ran an article comparing social studies textbooks published in or after 2016. Each textbook had special editions prepared for California and Texas, the two states with the greatest influences on textbook content. This meant that the chosen texts were from the same publishers and had the same authors, but existed in two different versions – “customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.” There were hundreds of differences, from subtle to obvious. And as you might expect, several of these differences were related to racial justice.
For example, in California, the sections describing resistance to Reconstruction after the Civil War focused on racism of people who “did not want African-Americans to have more rights,” backed up with primary sources. In Texas, that racist motivation is acknowledged but smoothed over with the additional justification that reforms are expensive and would result in higher taxes. And while both states had content about the Harlem Renaissance, Texas students were also taught that critics “dismissed the quality of literature produced.”
In California, discussion of the largely White flight to suburbia acknowledged “a desire to get away from more culturally diverse neighborhoods.” In Texas, students learned that “Some people wished to escape the crime and congestion of the city.” And in a discussion on immigration, California students read “an excerpt from a novel about a Dominican-American family,” while Texas texts replaced that passage with “the voice of a Border Patrol agent.” The latter included a stern (and racist) warning: “if you open the border wide up, you’re going to invite political and social upheaval.” Other marginalized communities are treated in similar ways, including issues related to Indigenous rights; immigration; gender and sexuality; and class and wealth inequality. (ibid)
Importantly, even the Texas editions are improvements over past textbooks. It may be hard to believe that, but this is what happens when textbooks even in the recent past include such popular myths as “some slave owners treated enslaved people kindly and that African-Americans were better off enslaved than free.” (ibid) So let’s be clear: just because we have taken some steps in the right direction, that does not mean the journey is complete. We still have a lot of work to do.
“The Heart of Historical Study”
Returning to Boston University’s invitation to study history, their web page points out that -
“the heart of historical study is a richly vicarious experience, teaching you to move beyond yourself and envision other worlds, to explore the interplay between material circumstances and human character. History is both a science and an art, combining the careful analysis of evidence with compelling storytelling. / Historical knowledge is powerful currency for the 21st century.
History increases cultural literacy and sensitivity. You will learn to consider multiple points of view and changing global contexts. And you will get more jokes. It also offers a unique education in the curation of content, teaching you how to collect, evaluate, and arrange a variety of sources into persuasive arguments and narratives. By interpreting the past you will better understand yourself. And those who know their history help to shape how people see themselves in the present and what they hope for the future.”
This is the invitation of studying history, especially history at the margins. The “curation of content” is the opportunity to center voices and points of view often excluded from privileged perspectives. If we are not listening at the margins, we are ignorant at the very least. Our understanding will be incomplete, and our vision of the future – and who is included in that future – is also incomplete. But it is also very likely that our understanding will also be wrong.
In this instance, Black History Month is necessary both because Black history has been excluded from our social awareness (our understanding is incomplete) and because the history we have been taught is inaccurate (our understanding is wrong).
In preparing these reflections, I came across an article by Yaa Gyasi, “White people, black authors are not your medicine” from March 2021. She put into words this wondrous capacity for reading “to challenge, to deepen, [and] to change” us, which I experience in both literature and history. She shared:
“I read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for the first time when I was a teenager, and it was so crystalline, so beautifully and perfectly formed that it filled me with something close to terror. I couldn’t fathom it. I couldn’t fathom how a novel could pierce right through the heart of me and find the inarticulable wound. I learned absolutely nothing, but some minor adjustment was made within me, some imperceptible shift that occurs only when I encounter wonder and awe, the best art.”
This is the power of words to shape and change us. But it is in stark contrast to what often happens. Reflecting on her experience of being a bestselling novelist, she wrote about the contrast between how White male authors have been treated compared to her and her colleagues’ experiences as neither White nor male. Amid this discussion, she points out the failure of readers to allow texts “to challenge, to deepen, [and] to change” us:
“When an interviewer asks me what it’s like to see Homegoing on the bestseller list again, I say something short and vacuous like ‘it’s bittersweet’, because the idea of elaborating exhausts and offends me. What I should say is: why are we back here? Why am I being asked questions that James Baldwin answered in the 1960s, that Toni Morrison answered in the 80s?” (ibid)
She answers that, at least in part, it is because those who need to do the work of being challenged and changed, are not doing that work. This is the habit of us well-intentioned White folx to reduce “buying books by black authors” to “a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm.” If we treat history and literature written by writers of color as “a kind of medicine” that we “have to swallow in order to improve [our] condition,” we do so in a way that communicates that:
“they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in ‘reading’ like that?” (ibid)
I am not trying to discourage anyone from the joy of buying books you don’t currently have time to read. But some honesty is also important on this point: buying books is no substitute for doing the work, and there are many more effective ways of paying reparations than buying books.
Through Instead of About
LaGarrett J. King helpfully describes the gap between the intentions and the impact of studying Black history, especially for us White folx: we are teaching (or learning) “about Black history instead of through Black history.” Teaching about Black history can be done without disrupting the current order of things, a perspective King calls “how white people imagine Black histories.” Teaching through Black history is a radical shift in power and perspective, adopting a “Black historical consciousness”. This requires “listening, writing, and teaching narratives from the actual historical experiences and voices of Black people.” (https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-black-history-is-about-more-than-oppression/2021/01 ) This fundamental shift in how we read and listen is essential. It is a conscious practice that undermines the social conditioning we have received that automatically elevates White voices, actions, perspectives, and judgments over all others. Similarly, and as King notes, it invites us to “recognize Black people’s full humanity and emphasize pedagogical practices that reimagine the legitimacy, selection, and interpretation of historical sources.” (ibid)
Finally, please note that the failure we are addressing is not with Black historians, writers, or educators, who have been doing this work for generations. The neglect is not with them. This failure rests within our broader culture, which has inherited and promoted the long tradition of centering Whiteness in social studies, often so blatantly that we cannot accurately call it anything but White Supremacy. As part of undermining and transforming that cruel tradition, King recommends six principles for studying Black history, and I highly recommend reading his article and exploring these important ideas and commitments.
Some of the principles have become increasingly familiar, such as bringing attention to the systemic aspects of “power, oppression, and racism”, and the importance of how multiple, intersecting identities shape the lived experience of Black people. Others have often received less attention, such as the importance of comparative studies “of Black histories and cultures across Africa and the African Diaspora worldwide.” But one seems especially important in reframing how we encounter, study, and are transformed by Black history: “Focus on Black joy through liberation and radical projects that defied oppressive structures throughout history.” (ibid)
As we explored several weeks ago, we are more than our trauma, and Black people are more than the experience of racism. An approach that too narrowly focuses on oppression and trauma dehumanizes marginalized communities. Black joy is also Black history. Black art and culture are part of resistance and liberation. So study Black history that includes the whole lives of Black people, families, communities, and movements. Read Black literature that opens up different worlds of perspectives. We need to be challenged and transformed by the answers James Baldwin gave in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison gave in the 80s, so we’ll also be able to better hear the voices of people speaking today.
The people in control of textbooks may have made history boring, but they knew that controlling the story was connected with controlling the people. So remember: studying history and literature can also be a form of resistance, if we do so in a way that challenges and changes us. And there’s nothing boring about working together to create communities where justice and love can flourish in the hearts and lives of every human being.