One nation, two histories

Monday, July 20, 2020 - 11:14pm

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If you’re anything like me, the Black Lives Matter movement has caused you to second guess everything you thought you knew about our country’s controversial history. I went to a small high school that had little to no diversity from students to staff, which is reflected in the gaps in my education. Personally, Juneteenth was a major awakening for me. Though June 19 was the day that the last enslaved people were emancipated in Texas, I had never heard about it before. I was always taught that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, along with the passage of the 13th amendment, ushered in a new era of liberty. This is just one example of the palpable bias that shadows modern history curriculum. The United States history curriculum is long overdue for an overhaul that accurately portrays our country’s history. 

In my small high school, however, this controversy seemed far away. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see someone sporting clothing that featured the Confederate flag, ignorant to the deeper meaning of that symbol. Recently, however, a debate has sparked regarding the display of Confederate flags and Confederate monuments. In cities across the country, Confederate statues have been removed, and NASCAR officially banned the Confederate flag at all of its events. Still, those opposed to the departure of this iconography remain adamant, urging that displaying Confederate symbols only memorializes history and ensures it doesn’t repeat itself. 

The origin of these symbols seems to contradict this notion, as many Confederate statues were erected during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights movement era, in direct response to the tidings of Black equality in America. Furthermore, the Confederate flag — a modern day symbol of white supremacy defended as a piece of history — was never the official flag of the Confederacy. It was just the battle flag. In addition, the flag wasn’t widely used until the 1940s in response to the emergence of ideas that would guide the Civil Rights Movement. 

But we were never taught this. We were never taught that the flag was a direct symbol of hate utilized as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. We were never taught that many Confederate statues were similarly erected as symbols of inequality and intimidation. It is because we never learned these precious facets of history that the gravity of these symbols has been lost. Unfortunately, this appears to be a trend: White authors of history curriculum paint the tale of this country in black and white — leaving gaps on the canvas where the grey of our ancestors’ immorality should lie. Instead, we are taught to revere the Founding Fathers, many of whom owned slaves, and that, while wrong, slavery was simply the answer to an inevitable need for labor in the colonies. While our textbooks may include a very basic telling of events, this telling is incredibly one-sided and fails to include a fuller, complex version of history wherein minorities perished at the hands of white men we have been taught to glorify like modern-day gods. 

This is due in part to textbook information disparity created by partisan politics. In a phenomenon known as “The Texas Effect,” many publishers have historically based curriculum off of Texas standards because Texas has a large number of public schools, equating to higher profits for these publishers. This curriculum tends to highlight Christianity, downplay slavery and celebrate the Founding Fathers — omitting or manipulating vital chunks of our nation’s controversial history. When compared to California history textbooks, these inconspicuous differences are very telling of the motivations behind this twisted narrative of history. These textbooks are intended to indoctrinate students, as many of these policymakers want to influence the upcoming generation, and the best way to do so is through education.  

The actual events of our nation’s past and the history we were taught are two very different tales. While the names and dates may be the same, the narrative diverges significantly, glazing over horrific atrocities while glorifying immoral men. The only cure for ignorance is education, and the only remedy for manipulation is honesty. We need a comprehensive reform of the curriculum to illustrate a candid portrait of history. Though it may be uncomfortable at times, it was Meghan Markle who said, “We’re going to have to be a little uncomfortable right now, because it’s only in pushing through that discomfort that we get to the other side of this and find the place where a high tide raises all ships.” After all, teaching an honest and accurate version of history is the only way we can make sure that this history never repeats itself again. 

Madeleine LaPierre can be reached at madlapi@umich.edu.