Teaching Slavery and Other Democratic Shortcomings in the History Classroom

My last essay on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri elicited positive feedback and, unsurprisingly, pushback and criticism. When I shared the essay on Twitter, a fellow North St. Louis county native by the name of Alan R. Knight (whom I’ve never met in person or previously interacted with online) tweeted me more than thirty times expressing his belief that I “should be more responsible” when discussing this topic. He provided a laundry list of grievances that never addressed the content of my essay, but instead conveyed a peculiar theory for explaining the economic and social issues currently plaguing North St. Louis county. According to Mr. Knight, much of these problems revolved around the teaching of slavery in history classrooms. In teaching slavery, north county educators are preaching “hatred,” “propaganda,” “victimization,” and “slander” to the area’s African American population in an attempt to teach them to hate the United States, rely on the state and federal government for welfare handouts, and give votes and power to the Democratic party (“democrat slavers,” according to Mr. Knight). He says we live in a fully equal society and that blacks are completely at fault for any “racist hatred” against them.

Most rational readers, I hope, can easily see the ridiculousness and silliness of these claims.

There are plenty of history teachers around the United States who teach this country’s history of slavery and choose not to associate with the Democratic party. Over nine-tenths of all entitlement benefits in the U.S. go to elderly, disabled, or working households – not working-age people who simply refuse to work. Mr. Knight’s blaming of “racist hatred” on the victims of racism rather than actual racists is nothing new within the so-called “race conversation” in America. As I’ve argued repeatedly, teachers are often seen as the sole influence in a child’s upbringing when in reality schools are merely one part of a larger community effort to raise a child. And the idea of a fully equal society becoming reality in social practice is most likely impossible because the precise definition of what constitutes “equality” constantly changes over time as new questions force society to reconsider the boundaries of individual freedom, fair play, and equal protection under the law. This is not to suggest that equality doesn’t exist in some capacity or that the United States has not experienced great advances in economic, social, and political equality during its history. Far from it. It’s safe to say I am probably more content living under the boundaries of equality in 2014 than if I were to live under the boundaries of equality from 1860. It just means there will never be a time when we’ll all shake hands, say “everything’s equal!,” and dispose of our laws, justice systems, and lawyers.

Mr. Knight, however, challenged me on a philosophical level to consider the role of slavery in the history curriculum. What is the importance of teaching slavery in a U.S. history class, regardless of grade level?

As countless historians, scholars, and citizens have argued, the worst aspects of U.S. history–slavery, Indian extermination and western expansion, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, imperialism, and mass incarceration–are not merely blips along the road to American democracy as we understand it today. They were fundamental building blocks in its growth, and you cannot honestly describe this nation’s history without addressing them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued earlier this year, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” Our nation’s capitol was literally built with slave labor, for crying out loud.

Teaching slavery is not a form of propaganda or victimization, nor should its existence in the U.S. history curriculum be a partisan talking point in which parties debate whether or not it should be in the curriculum in the first place. Slavery is a part of our history whether we like it or not. Teaching our students of its wrongs illuminates the vast gulf between democratic principles and democratic practices. It also exposes the difficulty of finding a balance between liberty and order in a republican democracy.

It’s also true that we should acknowledge the history of antislavery and the eventual emancipation of all slaves with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. Many heroes in U.S. history have put their lives on the line to right serious wrongs and promote peace, justice, and freedom. These people deserve our recognition, historical memories, and other acts of public commemoration. But how do students come to understand the challenges these people faced if you don’t first expose them to the wrongs and inequalities of the society in which they lived? How do students develop a genuine appreciation for abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, or the Grimke sisters without exposing them to the history of slavery or the fact that the abolitionist movement was very small and almost universally hated throughout the country during the antebellum era? To focus only on what we today consider “a good fight against inequality” without discussing those inequalities in depth is to put the cart before the horse in historical thinking and teaching. Talking only about “good history” is boring and uninspiring to students. It seems to me that if we want our students to feel like empowered citizens who can help make positive changes in our communities, we should expose them to this nation’s historical failures and the ongoing fight to make society more just, humane, and equitable. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

I didn’t respond to all of Mr. Knight’s grievances, but for those interested you will find part of our twitter conversation below.