Every morning, schoolchildren in Texas recite an oath to their state that includes the words, “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God.” Now, a flurry of proposed measures that could soon become law would promote even greater loyalty to Texas in the state’s classrooms and public spaces, as Republican lawmakers try to reframe Texas history lessons and play down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that are part of the state’s founding.
The proposals in Texas, a state that influences school curriculums around the country through its huge textbook market, amount to some of the most aggressive efforts to control the teaching of American history. And they come as nearly a dozen other Republican-led states seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught.
Idaho was the first state to sign into law a measure that would withhold funding from schools that teach such lessons. And lawmakers in Louisiana, New Hampshire and Tennessee have introduced bills that would ban teaching about the enduring legacies of slavery and segregationist laws, or that any state or the country is inherently racist or sexist. “The idea that history is a project that’s decided in the political arena is a recipe for disaster,” said Raul Ramos, a historian at the University of Houston who specializes in the American West.
For the past 30 years, the German artist, Gunter Demnig, has been installing little brass stones in the streets of cities in Europe where victims of the Holocaust once lived. He has now installed more than 70,000 of these memorials in 1,200 different cities and towns. Each one says simply, “here lived” and the name of the person along with their date of birth and some statement of their fate. The inscription is small so that those who wish to read the name of the deceased former resident, must bow down in humble tribute. These memorials are called “stolpersteine” which, in German, means “stumbling stones,” but they are not literally something you would trip on. They are set flush with the street so you wouldn’t literally stumble on them. They are moral stumbling blocks. They are a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust so that no one can forget what happened. (The Guardian, February 18, 2019 by Eliza Apperly)
We all know of Holocaust deniers. The crimes of the Nazis were so horrible and the damage to the self-esteem of Germans and many other people in Europe who were sympathetic with their anti-Semitic prejudice, was so great that there have been elaborate attempts at denying that it ever really happened. Some claim that the accepted figure of 6 million victims is dramatically inflated. Others even deny that there were death camps or gas ovens ever used to kill Jews, and the Roma, the disabled and gay people.
Say what you will about “freedom of speech,” but it is illegal to deny the Holocaust in Germany. It is illegal to display Nazi symbols or to wear a Nazi uniform or even to publish anything in praise of Adolph Hitler. Germans realized the danger of allowing people to pretend that they had not done what they very clearly did do and so there are no statues in honor of Hitler in Germany but there are many memorials to the victims of the Nazis and now these tens of thousands of reminders of specific individuals who once lived in this house or down that street. It is their hope that by remembering their true history, they will be much less likely to ever repeat it.
There are resurgences of neo-Nazi movements in Germany, just as there are fascists here in the United States and around the world. There is a certain attraction to “strong man” governments when people are filled with fear and paranoia but, if you care to know enough about real history, you know it is a path we do not want to follow.
Every nation has a certain amount of mythology about how they were founded and why they are one of the greatest if not the greatest nation in the world. I grew up in the 60’s with news of protests against the War in Vietnam and reports on Civil Rights demonstrations that sometimes turned into riots. I remember the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, of Malcom X and Martin Luther King. I knew, at some level, that my country was being torn apart but when you got to school, and for me, in those years, it was a segregated, all-white school, what we were taught about the Pilgrims, our founding fathers, the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere, George Washington . . . it was all just wonderful, and noble, and it all served to prove how lucky we all were to be born in this amazing country.
Based on my public-school education, America had never done anything wrong. We romanticized American Indians, but we never acknowledged the genocide or the Indian Removal that left only the arrow heads we found in the freshly plowed fields of the family farm as a sign that they had ever been in my state of Kentucky. And though it may be hard for you to believe, my family even romanticized slavery. We were poor and our grandparents and great-grandparents were even more poor but there was a family mythology of wealth and prestige when my ancestors were plantation owners and slave traders.
My college and grad school classes were more factual, though criticisms of American foreign policy felt suspicious to me for a long time. And, of course, most of my education had to do with theology, philosophy, and Biblical history. It wasn’t until I pretty much had my degrees in the bag that I began to pay attention to American history and my education was rather abrupt. I had a chance to hear and to meet the famous historian, Howard Zinn, at our local university early in this century. I met him again at Drury and later at Harvard where I had a chance to have a longer conversation with him. His book, A People’s History of the United States, along with James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, were two of the most eye opening and painful history books I have ever read. I highly recommend them both and if you are not a big reader, there are several audio book versions that you can listen to as you drive, but, seriously, everyone should read these books.
Sure, there is some disappointment about learning where all of America’s stumbling blocks have been, many of which we have known… we had to have known, but at least among white families, we never let ourselves feel differently about it than the way we had been taught. We had to know that the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of millions of Africans was evil but, you know, we didn’t grow up visiting a Native American Holocaust Museum, because there wasn’t one. And we not only didn’t see monuments dedicated to slaves and their contributions to the building of our nation, our economic and military strength. In fact, most of us in the south grew up seeing monuments to the people who tried to keep African slaves in slavery.
In fact, right up until recently we had people repeating the ridiculously cleaned up version of the Civil War, insisting that it was about states’ rights and that it had nothing to do with slavery. We should realize that most of our public school history books would be illegal if we had laws similar to German laws that demand the truth. People have fought to defend the placement of Confederate monuments, in honor of the “Hitlers” of our 19th Century history, insisting that no Black American should take offense nor any white person with a conscience find any reason to object. However, the Confederate states actually wrote legislative statements about why they were seceding from the Union and darned if they don’t talk about slavery as their reason for their actions. Just Google “Confederate states secession statements” and your 10 second investment in research will show you what your white ancestors were fighting for.
Mississippi’s document makes it unapologetically clear. It says, “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.” To paraphrase Forest Gump, “I’m not a smart man but I know what racism is.”
But all of our stumbling blocks are not always so easy to spot. A decade ago, I was asked to organize a conference for a large Unitarian Church in Florida in which Bishop John Shelby Spong and I would be the speakers and I brought Sean and Barry and other musicians from our church for this three-day event. I did not know, however, that this invitation was not actually met with the full-throated approval of the host pastor who spent most of those three days trying to make things as difficult for me as possible. Which just goes on the list of why I don’t like ministers very much but let’s not chase that rabbit right now.
In one of my talks, I referenced the fact, which I had learned from the eminent American historian, Howard Zinn, that Truman’s decision to drop Atom bombs on Japan was not really about defeating Japan. The war was essentially won already. But military brass was eager to try out their new weapon in battle, albeit against a mostly civilian population, and Truman wanted Russians to know that we both had the bomb and that we were willing to use it. The host pastor shouted out in response, “That’s not true!” Obviously, he didn’t know anything about it, but like a lot of uneducated, childish adults, he didn’t want for it to be true, and because he didn’t like the historical facts, he just shouted out a total dismissal.
But that is not out of character with most of America and, at some points, all of us. It is hard to stare at our Id, our moral shadow, but until we do, it is nearly impossible to not go on repeating the mistakes that we refuse to acknowledge. We really should take a lesson from the Germans and be willing to be reminded of our own stumbling blocks before we mess up again.
We have lately been treated to 7 different hearings from the Congressional committee that is investigating the January 6, 2021 violent insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Even though people all over the world watched this brazen attack on America’s symbol of democracy and freedom, multiple Republican politicians have tried to dismiss it, saying that it was just tourists who got a little out of hand. Like holocaust deniers, they are insisting on their spin of the facts to make themselves seem to be innocent of having tried to overthrow our American Democracy.
It was shocking, 18 months ago, to see the rioters desecrating that building and actually carrying Confederate flags into the Capitol Building where they had never been seen before, not even during the Civil War. But the hypocrisy doesn’t begin and end there. What the insurrectionists would not likely have known is that this building, this 200-year-old symbol of freedom and democracy, was built by about 1500 African slaves who literally carried their chains with them as they worked to build this citadel of freedom.
The argument conservatives are making against teaching Critical Race Theory in our public schools, and by that, they mean anything that mentions slavery or racism institutionalized in our government and laws, is of a cloth with the German holocaust deniers of the last century.
I am simply making the modest proposal that we all stop running from the truth and stop filling our kids heads with lies that they will have to unlearn later. Because, if we want a better quality of leader than what we have seen in elected office trying to protect the Capitol rioters, then we are going to need to educate our children a lot better than those guys were educated.
We absolutely need to provide the next generation with history books that tell the truth about the Native American genocide, the African slave trade, the violence against labor unions, the repression of women’s rights from voting, to birth control, to abortion. Our kids need to know about the failings of our justice system, the racial disparity in the application of the death penalty, and the incarceration of people of color for offenses that never show up in most white people’s criminal history.
We need this kind of honest education for exactly the same reasons that Germany doesn’t allow people to lie about their history and why their landscape is punctuated with reminders of the moral stumbling blocks that led to the Holocaust. I don’t want people to feel badly about being Americans. I just want America to become the country that was described in my public school education and the truth is the only path to become that nation.