Saturday, June 5, 2021

We Still Don't Know Much About History

         Sam Cooke had a Top 40 hit back in the 1960s with a teenaged love song that began with the historic line, “Don’t know much about history.” Cooke’s lyrics went on to disclaim knowledge about other school subjects and ended with a hopeful profession of teenaged love: “But I do know that I love you, And I know that if you love me, too, What a wonderful world this could be.”

            In retrospect, Cooke’s title can now be seen as more true than recognized at the time. In fact, most high school students in the mid-20th century learned less than the whole truth of American history, thanks to a highly sanitized account of the central role of race throughout U.S. history.

In my case, I took American history in 1963 from a much beloved teacher, who is now widely believed to have been a devotee of the pro-Confederacy Lost Cause. Doc Holden once referred in the classroom to the “War of Northern Aggression”—a phrase that I regarded at the time as a joke rather than the serious pro-Confederacy view of the Civil War.       

I recall nothing from that course about slavery: the degrading daily lives and broken families of the enslaved or the brutal hardships of the Middle Passage. I do recall that the textbook treated the post-Civil War history according to the then-standard historiography that the North punitively installed corrupt and ineffectual  carpetbagger governments on the defeated southern states.

Only now, a half century later, have I learned the whole truth from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s masterful account in Stony the Road: Reconstruction,
White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (
Penguin Press, 2019). White southerners, fearful of being outvoted by black freedmen, ruthlessly devised clever tactics to prevent blacks from exercising their newly granted right to vote and, at least twice, in Colfax, Louisiana, and Wilmington, North Carolina, overthrew elected biracial governments by force of arms.

Unsurprisingly, I also learned nothing about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the unspeakable destruction of Black Wall Street in 1921 now being recalled in print and on the air on the centennial of the worst race massacre in U.S. history. The actor Tom Hanks, a history buff of sorts, also recalled just this week in an op-ed in The New York Times [June 5] that he learned nothing about the Tulsa race massacre in his high school history course.

Apparently, most Oklahoma high school students also learned nothing about Tulsa in their high school history courses either.

The various other white pogroms against black Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries also went unmentioned in my high school, as far as I can recall. Eugene Robinson, in his column in The Washington Post [May 31], aptly noted some of the other massacres, misleadingly described at the time as race riots: Atlanta, 1906; East St. Louis, 1917; Chester, Pa., 1917; and twenty U.S. cities in 1919, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Most of those episodes are news to me now, but I have seen historical markers in Washington detailing the attacks on black veterans in 1919 back home after surviving combat in World War I.

Even worse, I recall nothing from my American history course about the civil rights revolution, which was taking place right before our eyes in real time in the 1960s. I do not recall any account of Jim Crow Laws or the Supreme Court’s decision upholding those laws in Plessy v. Ferguson, even though the Supreme Court had overturned that decision only a decade earlier in the very year that I enrolled in a segregated elementary school in a white working-class neighborhood.

In the current “racial reckoning,” statues honoring Confederate generals and heroes are rightly being dismantled over the objections of conservatives who claim that history is being erased. In fact, the whole truth about U.S. history needs to be un-erased after too many decades of ignoring the shameful history of violence by white terrorists against black Americans.

“Critical race theory,” a bete noire for cultural and political conservatives, seeks to remedy this shortcoming by telling the true history of systemic racism in U.S. history from 1619 to the present day.

Robinson’s response is blunt and terse: “There are those who deny that anything called ‘systemic racism’ is a feature of the American landscape,” Robinson wrote in closing. “They should be aware that history tells a very different story.”

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously warned that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The challenge for Americans now is to learn the past, perhaps for the first time, and then to proceed from a deeper understanding of our checkered past to remedy the legacies that four centuries of racism have left for current generations to address and change.


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