We Cannot Erase Our History

In these “challenging times” (a phrase I now loathe), it is absolutely essential that we not destroy the truth of the history of the south or our nation. But how much of that history are we actually teaching?

Here we sit, just one day after the five-year anniversary of the Mother Emanuel church murders. And one day away from a celebration that was never mentioned in my house, school, church, or family. It is the celebration of Juneteenth, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation finally coming to Texas on the 19th of June, 1865.

It is my good fortune to know the women’s basketball coach at Furman University, Jackie Smith Carson. She posted a tweet last week asking how many of us learned about Juneteenth in school?

It is an honest question. Coach Carson never heard it in school but learned it at home. I never heard of it anywhere until about four years ago.

I wonder why that is?

As we continue to grapple with the issue of Confederate flags and monuments across the United States, Coach’s question might provide some guidance on how we can proceed. And it brings to mind intense questions on how we teach children to navigate history.

There are some standard rallying cries against the changing of building names, the toppling of statues, and the banning of the “stars and bars.” It is almost always some variation of “You cannot erase history!”

“My family fought for the south!”

“We have to remember our past!”

Well, yes, all of those things may be true. But is Juneteenth not also a part of that history? Is it not true that many Americans received their first hint of freedom from at least one aspect of slavery on that day in 1865, when the last holdout state of Texas got the word?

Yet we do not seem to be as concerned about that as we are about a statue of the founder of the KKK. Or the preservation of a placard in Greenville declaring the south was right.

In the interest of full disclosure, I join others in my concern about erasing or ignoring history. We need to know our history, teach our history, and learn from our history.

All of it.

Preserving a group of statues to men who engaged in armed insurrection against the United States is not the tool for true history. In fact, it may be the tool to whitewash a ton of history’s harsh realities. The South Carolina legislature has institutionalized the protection of Confederate memorials and organizations are forced to petition for exceptions to make changes

Let us begin by noting that we can learn history without honoring all aspects of that history. A monument honors history, often without educating people about its realities. Saying that you want to take down a statue or change the name of the building may indicate that you care about the TRUTH of history, rather than honoring it.

Both sides of my family fought for the south in the Civil War. One side of my family owned a significant number of slaves and built their large homestead in North Carolina with slave labor. I am related (by marriage) to John C. Calhoun. My family was extremely close friends with General Wade Hampton III. It is essential to know that family history, but it does not mean that I have to celebrate it.

A full understanding of history only happens when we agree to engage the full scope and reality of the past. By maintaining monuments while neglecting the classroom, we fail to even remotely recognize that scope and reality. This nation invested 155 years into preserving the mythology of valiant Southerners dying for states’ rights

It is time for the nation to grapple with the whole truth. This is not going to happen by maintaining our monuments. Better yet, we can teach a history curriculum that includes Juneteenth and a host of other relevant facts that we have long ignored. (FYI, these initial ideas are particular to South Carolina).

How many of us learned about the Orangeburg Massacre in SC history?

Or Septima Poinsette Clark?

Or the placing of the Confederate flag on top of the statehouse in 1963?

Or the lynching of Willie Earle?

Or the Hamburg Massacre, and the subsequent Ellenton riot?

Or the brutality of Benjamin Tillman and John C. Calhoun?

How many of us heard about Joseph Hayne Rainey or Robert Smalls?

It is almost assured that most of us never heard a word about Juneteenth, if we could not even cover the people and issues that seriously impacted the story of our own state.

And finally, I would bet every dime I have (few as they may be) that no one ever teaches about Thomas Dixon and how his fraudulent story of The Clansmen precipitated the myths of dangerous black men—a mythology that contributed to the creation of hundreds of Confederate monuments.

The reality that some do not want to acknowledge is this: Confederate monuments preserve a false reality rather than actual history. Because the real history is too ugly for us to take and too many do not want to face it.

Nevertheless, if we want to take a real look in the mirror and begin to heal the wounds of our past, we need to teach the full scope of history before we decide how we honor those who are a part of it.

Yes, we cannot erase our history. But we can certainly stop limiting it to the sections that fit our narrative, and start telling the whole of history. After we begin to do that, the “debate” over Confederate monuments should take care of itself.

Changing monuments and the history curriculum are small steps in a very long journey. They will not end the systemic racism in our society or the absence of good in the hearts of those who continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes.

But these steps are still important. Perhaps it will empower a new generation of students who know the truth—the whole truth—about their history to not be doomed to repeating the mistakes of a racist past.

Some Suggestions? 

How can we ensure that our children are receiving a more complete education into the history of ALL citizens of this country. Here are a few ideas–and I would request that you feel free to comment and add others!

Request Copies of Curriculum Requirements: I have asked for such documents for my particular school district, and am looking into the expectations for teaching history.

-Educate yourself–and your family: Keep in mind that teachers are not always given time to cover everything, even things they want to teach! Do your own reading and research, and talk to your family about what you learn.

-Talk with your child’s teacher: Ask if they plan to cover some of these issues; and perhaps ask how you can help.

More ideas–particularly from educators? I welcome your comments!

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