Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Collegian or its editorial board.
This month is women’s history month and last month was black history month, so it’s a good time to talk about the fact that we don’t get taught history as it happened in U.S. schools. We get Disney-style tales where the white men are always the heroes and lots of great people don’t get mentioned. The result is an ill-informed society that lacks critical thinking on its issues.
A woman named Sybil Ludington rode twice as far as Paul Revere to warn of incoming British, yet you likely have never heard that name. Multiple women, white and black, played huge roles in the Revolutionary and Civil war, yet little to no mention. Black men held office in the south before Woodrow Wilson kicked them out in the early 1900s, and still, little to no mention. Some Seminole tribes in the early Americas included white, black and native Americans; they represent possibly the purest form of an inclusive society in our American history, but still get little to no mention.
I think it’s an insult to our intelligence that we’re supposed to accept history as this one-sided narrative. The ruling descendants of Europeans are always being held up as the righteous or justified heroes of the story when, for some, that’s not quite true and, for others, it’s murky at best.
While there are some heroes of that variety, good, white men being noble as the overall moral of our story rightfully insults other groups. Telling our history this way means one of two things is happening; it means those people who write the narratives, the lobbyists and the four or five major textbook publishers, are either assuming we’re so naive as to believe it’s all so simple and pure, or they’re playing to the undeniable fact that most people won’t ever know better if they’re not told.
It starts with Columbus; he discovered America even though there were people already here and there’s strong evidence of many others making it to the Americas first.
Worse than the obvious flaws in these fables are the atrocities and complexities that are left out of the story. It’s not stressed enough that Columbus enslaved both natives americans and Africans. In Haiti Columbus’ brother counted 1.1 million natives in 1496. Some historians believe there were closer to 3 million, but either way, by 1516 a historian named Benjamin Keen estimated there were only 12,000 of those same natives left due to their treatment as slaves and exposure to disease. He was promptly blacklisted as a communist sympathizer in the 1950s for pushing unedited history like this.
On the American mainland and in Africa the slave trade began in direct response to Columbus. This was also when white people stopped seeing it as acceptable to own each other, regardless of other reasons. To me, that’s when racism as we know it began.
Columbus is just the earliest and maybe most extreme example. Still, my argument here isn’t to strip Columbus. He was unsavory to say the least, but his drive played maybe the biggest role in the establishment of the U.S. However, for the sake of fairness, we still need to tear him apart where he deserves it.
While we need to get the whole truth about our forefathers, we can still hold them accountable for their mistakes while recognizing their undeniable contributions.
For example, George Washington was basically on our side during the revolution because of money issues and he had several hundred slaves at Mt. Vernon. He was still great, if not morally sound by our standards. Lincoln was prejudiced, he even looked into sending slaves back to Africa but deemed it impractical. In the end though he knew the country couldn’t exist with slavery and he eventually grew to respect at least some black people as is evident in his well recorded relationship with Frederick Douglass.
Giving us these insights into our forefathers’ pasts while not making up blatant lies that downplay instances of slavery, genocide and the fact that everyone’s flawed would undoubtedly make all Americans feel more akin from the start.
Minority Americans, women and the poor deserve to have their people lauded for their achievements and not slighted or held as secondary characters through clever, rich, white, male PR. That’s one of the problems of thinking of the country as a business. Views and values are systematically altered to be in line with those highest in the company ladder.
Extending to all Americans, a history written in its full breadth would, in theory, impose on us the knowledge that everything that works out doesn’t always start pretty. Most importantly it would illustrate that ideas, morality, people and our society develop in a complex fashion. It would allow us to have more civil and logical conversations about our society’s issues.
Collegian columnist Mack Beaulieu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.