Telling the Truth About Slavery Is Not ‘Indoctrination’Historians in the News
tags: slavery, teaching history, Donald Trump, Dunning School, 1776 commission
Last week, at the White House Conference on American History, President Donald Trump denounced the way “the left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” attacking Howard Zinn, critical race theory, and The New York Times’ 1619 Project (to which I was a contributor). The president emphasized the need for “patriotic education” in our schools, and seemed to downplay the centrality of slavery, and perhaps any sort of oppression, to America’s founding.
“Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” Trump said at the event. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”
“Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, “that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right.”
Listening to Trump, one would think that a rigorous examination of slavery and its implications was a central fixture of American classrooms. Recent surveys, however, show that young people in America have enormous gaps in what they understand about the history of slavery in this country. According to a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8 percent of high-school seniors surveyed were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds of students did not know that a constitutional amendment was necessary to formally end slavery.
What fascinated me most about Trump’s speech was his choice to frame it around “indoctrination.” It was strange to realize that providing a holistic account of what slavery was, and the horror it wrought, might be understood as indoctrination—especially if the only stories one has been told about America have been cloaked in the one-dimensional mythology of exceptionalism.
“We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans,” Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction.
Du Bois was writing during a moment when the narrative of slavery as a benevolent, amicable arrangement between the enslaver and the enslaved had come to dominate America’s collective memory of the that historical period Many Americans saw slavery as an arrangement in which Black people were happy to serve the white people who owned them, and in which those who owned them treated their laborers with a paternal and generous kindness. Such a narrative was propagated by the Columbia historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, whose 1918 book, American Negro Slavery, would shape how white Americans understood the institution. “On the whole,” Phillips wrote, “the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of American negroes represented.”
As a graduate student, Phillips studied under the historian William A. Dunning, namesake of the Dunning School—which was not a physical institution, but a racist intellectual movement. The Dunning School’s legacy includes entrenching within American public consciousness the idea that, following the Civil War, Black people had proved themselves, through both elected office and suffrage, incapable of participating in democracy. As the historian Eric Foner has put it, “The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System.” At the core of Phillips’s scholarship was the idea that slavery was not in fact an inhuman institution predicated on physical and psychological torture, and that its role in the growth of the American economy was minimal.
Teaching the actual history of slavery does not necessitate skewing, omitting, or lying about what happened in this country; it takes only an exploration of the primary source documents to give one a sense of what it was and the legacy that it has left.
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