Time to Stop the WhitewashRoundup
tags: Reconstruction, African American history, teaching history
Joseph R. Fitzgerald, a Schenectady native, is an associate professor of history and political science, and coordinator of the Black Studies program, at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation.
In the last days of his presidency, Donald J. Trump released the “1776 Report,” a work he commissioned to counter the allegedly anti-American sentiment in the nation’s school systems. It was something that was purportedly advanced by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers European’s enslavement of Africans as a foundational event in the nation’s history. The solution to this, the “1776 Report” stated, is “restoring patriotic education that teaches the truth about America. That doesn’t mean,” it went on, “ignoring the faults in our past, but rather viewing our history clearly and wholly, with reverence and love.”
Within 48 hours of taking office, President Joe Biden had the report taken down because it was riddled with factual inaccuracies and racist framing of our history, and despite the report’s claim, left out important aspects of historical events and processes.
You’d be wrong to think that scrubbing the “1776 Report” from the internet means that its version of history only existed for a brief moment in time. The sad reality is that it’s been the dominant version of history taught to generations of students. I would know because I’m a history professor.
Over the course of two decades, I’ve met students of all racial backgrounds who talk about being fed a history that downplayed or even ignored horrible events from our nation’s past, such as the crime against humanity known as enslavement. Our history, at least as it relates to this crime and its legacy (e.g., Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, lynching) goes something like this: “Slavery was bad but Lincoln freed the slaves. Then Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and Barack Obama got elected president.” With the exception of Obama’s election, that’s essentially the history I was taught in the 1970s and 1980s.
Like many Americans, I’d like for there to be a coherent national history that serves students by helping them gain a useful understanding of our nation’s past, correctly informs them how we got to this point, and prepares them for civic engagement in our multiracial democracy. What isn’t useful, however, is perpetuating a whitewashed version of history that doesn’t permit students to learn and grasp how fundamental enslavement was to this nation’s founding and that white supremacist oppression of Black people didn’t stop when the treasonous rebels were defeated in the Civil War.
Take as an example the Jan. 6 insurrection in our nation’s capital. Thousands of seditionists, many of whom are white supremacists, used violent actions, including murder, in their attempt to overthrow a legitimate election. I wasn’t surprised by this because I’m a historian of Black history. This means that I knew of white supremacists’ successful coup in 1898 in Wilmington, N.C.,when they used the tactic of terrorist violence to overthrow the city’s interracial government. This, and other tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes, were the means by which white supremacists carried out their strategy of disenfranchisement to achieve their goal of stripping away Black people’s rights and forcing them back onto the margins of society.
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