The Re-Whiting of American History

rachelnightrunner (1)By Rachel Perzynski, Associate Editor
Graphic by Klaire Brezinski

If you needed more evidence as to how our nation continues to undermine the struggles and triumphs of black Americans, you would only have to pick up a U.S. History textbook at your local library.

While looking for resources on antebellum slavery for The Theatre School’s recent production of Night Runner, I came across several such History textbooks in DePaul’s Curriculum Materials Collection. The title of one, in particular, caught my attention: History of a Free Nation. Behind this seemingly benign title was the implication that the United States has historically promoted freedom for all its inhabitants—a troubling notion considering how millions of black Americans were legally enslaved for 87 years after the nation’s Independence Day.

When we retell U.S. history through the lens of dominant, white society, the stories of those we oppressed become merely an afterthought. Out of the eight K-12 textbooks, I could find on the history of the Americas, only one included a complete unit on the conditions of enslaved persons in the United States and the work of the abolitionists. Although the sample size was small, my findings point to the larger trend of African American history’s exclusion or minimal coverage as a whole in primary and secondary education.

Take Black History Month, for instance. Why do educational institutions continue to pigeonhole the history of black Americans into one month? Even one of the leading founders of Negro History Week, Carter G Woodson, believed that the weekly and monthly celebrations would inevitably come to an end. The ultimate goal of Negro History Week was to incorporate black history into year-long history curricula. Yet here we are, almost a century later since its initial inception in the 1920s, continuing to segregate how history is taught along racial lines.

When major K-12 textbook companies manage to cover some aspects of black history in the United States, they frequently downplay white America’s brutal mistreatment of African Americans—from describing the Atlantic slave trade as a migration of “millions of workers from Africa” to undercutting slavery as a central cause of the Civil War.

One of the more common strategies for minimizing the horrors of slavery that I observed across textbooks is to focus on its economic impact. I was more likely to find a complete section on how slave labor built up the cotton economy of the South than on the harsh living conditions of the enslaved Africans. While slavery was largely motivated by economic benefits, it is essential to understand that the system was maintained through continual violence and a campaign of dehumanization. Without sufficient knowledge of slavery’s cruelties, our youth will be tempted to believe that slavery “really wasn’t that bad” and racist treatment will become further normalized.

Another tactic used by textbook companies to justify our bloody history is to portray Northern white abolitionists as saviors of the enslaved people of the South. Contained within almost every definition of the Underground Railroad that I could find was the claim that it was established and operated by Northern abolitionists. While this secret network was supported by white abolitionists—especially in terms of economic donations, it was run predominately by free black people.

Yet dominant history narratives would have you believe otherwise. Why?

If enslaved blacks are depicted as helpless, then they become more deserving of their fate and black Americans today—by extension—become more deserving of their history. By wiping clean black resistance and triumphs over slavery, their strength becomes a delusion of passivity.

While it is necessary to be honest about the brutality of slavery, it is equally necessary to account for the active role enslaved people took in securing their own freedoms. Otherwise, Carter G Woodson writes in The Mis-Education of the Negro, “to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”

One trip to the library showed me that not only is white bias pervading the American narrative, but it has even crept into how our children are taught the history of American slavery. Without acknowledging the full history of our nation, we are trapped within it and doomed to repeat it. But if we can openly admit to the crimes of white society and elevate black historical figures to the forefront of history, perhaps the freedom for all in the United States might start to slowly become more of a reality.

Resources for Further Reading:
Blight, David W., ed. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Washington: Smithsonian in Association with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 2004.

Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. New York: Amistad, 2006.

Williams, Heather Andrea. American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford UP, USA, 2014.

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