Tom Cotton Wants To Save American History. But He Gets It All Wrong.Roundup
tags: slavery, racism, teaching history, revisionism, 1619 Project
Malinda Maynor Lowery is the author of The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) recently proposed “saving American history” by refusing to tell the truth about our past. His legislation would limit federal education funds for schools adopting or adapting the New York Times’s “1619 Project” in history courses. To justify his objection to truth-telling, Cotton claimed he was honoring the Founding Fathers’ view of slavery as a “necessary evil.” As the coronavirus pandemic worsens and protests continue across the country over racial injustice, Cotton is proposing both bad history and bad policy.
Cotton’s remarks and his proposal to revise history obscure the violence, death and displacement that slavery caused in both Black and Indigenous communities. Reclaiming shared histories that are forgotten or misremembered is essential to the success of systemic reform. Too often, we discuss Black and Indigenous histories separately, when in fact an honest reckoning with American history demands recognizing the shared history of slavery and the other structural forces that have shaped and constrained both groups. Filling incomplete narratives of the past requires amplifying the voices and experiences of Black and Indigenous communities.
European conquest of the Americas brought violence, displacement and deadly epidemic disease that not only decimated Indigenous people but also people of African descent in the Americas. But the spread of epidemic disease among Indigenous and African-descended people was a result of policy as much as biology. Their societies had carefully adapted to epidemic diseases, and their ripple effects, before Europeans arrived in North America or Africa. Healers could remove contagions through medicine and spiritual practice. They imposed successful quarantines. They managed food systems despite seasonal uncertainty, redistributing food and other goods to sustain communities.
European colonizers’ disruption of these societies and these healing practices brought on the first genocides of native people and the widespread deaths of African peoples, both in the Americas and during the Middle Passage. Warfare and enslavement disrupted these communities and then prevented healers from doing their work and people from accessing medical and spiritual care. Displacement and famine followed. Death from disease was not inevitable. Rather, specific colonial policies — notably those that encouraged theft and used stolen resources to develop systems that valued property over people — made strong communities vulnerable and then, when disaster struck, denied those same communities their own means of recovery and revitalization.
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