Parul Sehgal, senior editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote a wonderful piece on erasure in American culture yesterday. Sehgal makes a compelling case that we lack the capacity for imagining more than a single narrative (primarily that of the straight, white, Christian male), which is made evident across our artistic spectrum– from media coverage of crime to representations in film, television, and literature we struggle to tell a variety of stories. The great Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a powerful TedTalk on the danger of the single story back in 2009. Give it a watch below. And if you have not read Americanah, you should.
This topic is near and dear to my heart. In few areas is erasure more clear than in history. Sehgal alludes to this, referencing the controversy last July over the textbooks Texas adopted for the next five or so years. The Texas Board of Education, led in this effort by conservative, Baptist, retired Social Studies teacher Pat Hardy, created textbook guidelines that asked prospective works to downplay the struggle for civil rights and to portray the Civil War as being largely about sectional strife and states’ rights. This is not an invention of the liberal media, Hardy herself is quoted saying that slavery “was a side issue to the Civil War.” This, of course, is nonsense. Read any of the declarations of secession, including the Texas declaration, and see for yourself what the people who fought the war said it was over. It was slavery.
This is Dunning School bullshit. And it is par for the course when it comes to the way Texas manipulates history in their schools. While I was at McGraw-Hill Education we were preparing to develop textbooks for this Texas adoption cycle. The academic development team had to bone up on the oddities of the Texas adoption board, which mandates what figures you can include, where they can be included, and what they can be used to highlight. The best example of this micro-management is their handling of Thomas Jefferson.
I prefer Jefferson in a distilled form.
Jefferson was to be included for his stance on small government, opposition to government tyranny, and individual freedom. He was not to be discussed in terms of Enlightenment philosophy, ideas on the role of church and state, public education, or the contradiction between his stance on individual freedom and slave ownership (Jefferson himself was acutely aware of his failings in this department). The narrative was clear– American and World history were to teach the youth in Texas about the importance of individual freedom and a limited government. Information that contradicted or muddied this message was not welcome.
History, when it is done best, is a messy process. Nothing is inevitable. Right and wrong are often obscured. And it rarely moves in one direction at a time. The history of Jefferson and the early republic shows that. Despite being the leader of the Anti-Federalist, small government movement, Jefferson greatly expanded federal power. He wrote the first Northwest Ordinance, which exerted federal authority over state claims to the region, decided the question of slavery for the region (outlawing it), and established the settlement process as a federal money-maker. He made executive decisions that had no clear Constitutional allowance. He fought an undeclared war with Tripoli (though he was granted limited authority through several pieces of legislation). Jefferson is complex, like every other leader, figure, movement, or moment in history.
A true understanding of the past requires that it be complex. There should be multiple viewpoints– just as there are in reality. Yes, it makes the story harder to understand. But it should be. Our world is complicated. Black History month was devised to combat the single story. It is not some special dispensation. It is not a feel-good add on to the curriculum. It is a concerted effort to show Americans that blacks have always been a part of US history. That they have played a large role in our past. And in that, it has largely failed.
#WhitePeopleEquivalents is a good source of how patronizing whites made loose, context-less associations between things as an act of racist apologia.
That it has done so poorly should come as no surprise. It is too often left in the hands of well-meaning, but patronizing whites (who at their best are often just racist apologia adjacent). Like Adichie’s freshman roommate, most schools and media outlets present black history as a series of “isn’t that cute” anecdotes of black accomplishments of note. They will trot out George Washington Carver, venerate MLK (while ignoring his words), and make glorious images of Fredrick Douglass’s hair. What they will not do is integrate blacks into the primary narrative. They won’t use this month to reflect on why their stories of our past, present, and future represent a fundamentally white orientation. No state asks their teachers to hold up the promise of the Declaration of Independence to the light of truth and ask “are these self evident truths for black folks too?” Historically, we know the answer has been no. And it continues to be the case. Few media outlets will challenge the men and women running for the highest office in our land on their lily-white version of American history. Shouldn’t our leaders be expected to explain how the very things they hold up as great and exceptional about our nation have often been denied, with violence, to some of the earliest members of our collective body? Conservative media outlets will run out folks like Stacey Dash to chastise liberals for “segregating blacks” with such celebrations– ignoring that their own unwillingness to include the black experience in their version of America is what gives impetus to this movement in the first place.
Black History Month exists because white people cannot accept the idea that anything but our experience can be the baseline for understanding society. We talk about US history that way. Our feeble attempts at world history are plagued by it. Our literature betrays it. Our film and television makes it plainly clear. No amount of evidence to the contrary seems to be enough to prove to us that the Africans (and African-Americans) have indeed produced their own “Tolstoy.” Many times over, actually. Our ignorance stands in as a substitute for reality.
To those who dislike the idea of Black History month, I’d challenge you to tell me how and where blacks fit into your narrative of the past. Can you explain how the Washington-du Bois debates influenced the civil rights movement? Or what lessons it holds for discussions on inequality and education for America today? How has the work of the greatest living American writer (and possibly the greatest American author ever), Toni Morrison, changed you? (Here is a great piece on her from the NYT Magazine, but seriously go read everything she has written that you can get your hands on.) Have you read Soul on Ice? Can you understand Cleaver’s rage and transformation? What were the contributions of black women in transforming our notions of public space? Where does Aaron McGruder’s work fit into your tapestry of American pop culture? How would you describe his humor and commentary?
Our past and present were influenced in ways great and small by black people. If your story doesn’t include that, your story is half-baked at best. Instead of whining about multiculturalism watering down our culture I suggest you try to interact with something you don’t already think you know once in a while. You might just learn something.