A heated Facebook messenger exchange occurred between myself and a family member this summer, stemming from my request that they no longer share Tucker Carlson videos with me. In a very Carlson-esque rant, this family member then launched into the myth of Irish slavery, a method some use to diminish the suffering of Black Americans. When I swiftly and firmly pushed that myth aside, they replied “What credentials do you have? None….you are not as smart as you think you are. This country was made by Americans who loved it…Please do not trash my country because your beliefs are not very American.”
What credentials do I have?
I have a doctorate in the history of the U.S. South.
On September 17th, President Trump attacked the “left-indoctrination” of schools and curriculum, claiming that American history teachers view “every issue through the lens of race.” In response to this alleged push for “a new segregation,” he called for “patriotic education” and a “pro-American” curriculum. During the White House Conference on American History, the President and other panelists (one of which was medical doctor Ben Carson — I did not know doctorates were so transferable and therefore request a neurosurgeon’s salary at once) denounced the New York Times’ 1619 Project as “toxic propaganda” and hyper fixated on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, last revised in 2009.
I wish I had time to lay out the ways in which this nationalist effort to quell dissent mirrors many, many autocratic regimes throughout history, who bent history to their will in search of compliance through blind allegiance.
Nevertheless, the charges have been laid out, by my family and the president. I teach U.S. slavery at an R-1 university. I am unpatriotic. I am trashing my country. I am un-American.
Mister President, how in the hell do you teach a patriotic history of the U.S. South? How can we learn to “love America” when discussing the countless treaties we made and broke with Indigenous Americans? When, in 1860, 57% of South Carolina’s population was enslaved? When the South left the United States to maintain its slaveholding way of life and, in the process, fought and killed the U.S. Army? When a white mob overthrew the democratically elected, biracial government in Wilmington and killed hundreds of Black North Carolinians? When white Southerners gang raped Recy Taylor? Blinded Isaac Woodard? Murdered Emmett Till? Assassinated Medgar Evers?Continued to nominate segregationist Strom Thurmond as U.S. Senator until his death in 2003? Built a Strom Thurmond Fitness Center on land that was once a Black neighborhood, torn down during urban renewal?
There is one answer. You don’t.
The only way to teach a “patriotic” history of the U.S. South is to lie by omission.
To make my students “love America,” I must leave out the ugly parts of history and instead teach students why America is the “best country in the world.” To teach according to Trump is to deliberately censor any historical evidence that might make us look like anything other than God’s favorite country.
Suppose you wanted to teach a class on Thomas Jefferson. He is, after all, a “hero” Founding Father. You might begin with a familiar touchstone for your students — his declaration that “all men are created equal.” However, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson stated that Black Americans are “in reason much inferior [to white people], as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous…the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.”
In both examples, Thomas Jefferson put his pen to his paper and wrote out his thoughts on equality. I have a feeling, however, that only one of the above will make people like Trump “love America.” I suppose that, by sharing Jefferson’s second opinion, I am indoctrinating my students with anti-American sentiments. Strange, considering that so far, I myself have added no personal opinions on Jefferson. (Buy me a gin and tonic when this is all over and we can talk about Sally Hemings).
To call a man a hero is to strip him of his humanity. From our idols we remove the fallibility of man, we banish all consideration of their flaws. There’s a reason why the working wings of Monticello were underground — they’re ugly. Bury them.
Listen, I’m a white Southerner. I know about the skeletons in our closet. Teaching history through lying by omission is the reason why we’re still debating about Confederate monuments in 2020.
As a history professor in the South, I am hyper-aware that the moment a student perceives my teaching as “anti-American,” they could immediately dismiss my course as liberal propaganda. Every historical assertion I make (secession was absolutely about slavery — politically, economically, socially, morally) must be immediately accompanied, before or after, by primary sources to support my point. I tell them that they’re welcome to disagree, provided they show me the primary sources that led them to their conclusion. My students are smart. They aren’t going to trust me without the receipts.
I have yet to read any anonymous student evaluations dubbing me an arbiter of leftist indoctrination. Students seem to quite like me, actually. But that doesn’t seem to matter to people like Trump. To them, I am not teaching their children to think critically about the past, to weigh our sins alongside our many progresses. The moment my hard history doesn’t align with their rosy view of the United States, they immediately claim that I am an ivory-tower elite set out to destroy America. With this logic, they can easily dismiss anything I say as invalid without actually engaging with the historical argument.
It’s not only lazy — it couldn’t be further from the truth.
My degree was conferred in the middle of a pandemic, via Zoom. Hiring searches are frozen. My contract is up in May 2021. To live with this reality, to hear the public’s thoughts on my profession while I scramble to make sure my students in quarantine have access to class content…it’s a gut punch. I’m so tired. Maybe, after May, the American patriots will have won, as one more “leftist radical” leaves academia.
Or maybe I’ll harness some of that manic energy that my students call “passion,” turn off the Conference livestream, and teach for four hours straight. I’ll engage my students on the topic of free speech and what they expect to learn when they take a history course. They’ll tell me that part of going to college is being exposed to opposing viewpoints, learning to think critically. They hate when I coddle them — they want to see the whole historical picture and decide for themselves.
Thomas Jefferson has nuance. History has nuance. The South is a rich, rich tapestry of nuance. My students will tell me that they cannot fully appreciate historical figures and movements without knowing how much it cost, how much they struggled to achieve what they did. The kids are alright, and I’m going to keep teaching them until they drag me from campus.
On September 17th, Donald Trump urged American educators to focus on the “miracle” of U.S. history. The miracle of U.S. history is that we’ve managed to get this far in spite of the sins of our forefathers. And we still have so far to go.