How a History Textbook Would Describe 2020 So FarRoundup
tags: textbooks, teaching history, Protest, COVID-19
James West Davidson is the author of A Little History of the United States and ‘They Say’: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. He has collaborated on American-history surveys for college, high school, and the middle grades.
History never ends. But history textbooks must. As deadlines for new editions loom, every textbook writer lurches to a sudden stop. The last chapter always ends in uncertainty: unfinished and unresolved. I’ve experienced this many times myself, as a co-author on several history textbooks.
By now it seems clear that we are all living through a major turning point in history, one that will be studied for years to come. Future textbook authors will write entries on the year 2020, revise them, and revise them some more with each new edition. What follows is an attempt at—literally—a first draft of history: what I might write if I were wrapping up the last chapter of a high-school history textbook right now.
The Year 2020: Matters of Life and Breath
By any measure, the first three years of the Trump administration had been tumultuous. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller won convictions of several of the president’s associates for witness tampering, lying to Congress and the FBI, and bank fraud. (“A Witch Hunt,” the president complained.) Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine led the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to impeach him, though the Republican-controlled Senate failed to convict. (See Chapter 34.) Only twice before in American history had a president been impeached, and none had ever been convicted.
For older people and those with existing health problems, COVID-19 could be ruthless. Most people experienced only mild symptoms, such as fever or a cough, or no symptoms at all. But others found themselves fighting for life as their lungs filled with fluids. Over time, doctors discovered that coronavirus infections could lead to complications such as stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure.
On Memorial Day 2020, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, a second unexpected event shook the nation, one that was also marked by the death of a single person whose breath failed him.
George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a 6-foot-7-inch “gentle giant” and “a natural comedian,” according to one friend. He was killed by a police officer after being arrested, handcuffed, and pulled to the ground, where the officer pressed a knee onto his neck and held it there for nearly nine minutes, as three other officers stood by. Bystanders captured almost the entire sequence on video. Among Floyd’s last words was the phrase “I can’t breathe,” repeated over and over.
The next evening, protesters marched through Minneapolis. Within days, the protests spread to major cities across the country, including Memphis, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta, and New York City. Demonstrators wore masks and shared hand sanitizer, trying to stay safe from the coronavirus even as they gathered in large groups. While most protesters were peaceful, some set fires or vandalized police cruisers and stores. Police were out, and many of them responded with extreme force, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons, and rounding up protesters to arrest them in droves.
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