Nearly sixty years ago, James Baldwin explained the dilemma of educating young minds in a culture that thrives on their ignorance, when he noted:
“The purpose of education…is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions…But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.”
Although it’s doubtful even one of them is familiar with Baldwin’s words here, lawmakers across the country appear determined, as of late, to confirm them. With their attacks on anti-racist education, these officials, in thrall to right-wing influencers, are instantiating his wisdom in real time, more than a half-century after he offered it.
By seeking to prohibit material suggesting a less-than-virtuous origin to the nation (or its trajectory since) they have made clear their preference for people who acquiesce rather than question.
Of course, to hear conservatives tell it, their purposes are not only benign but heroic. They are, they insist, “protecting children” from material that will, if unchecked, lead them to hate their country and — if those children are white — hate themselves.
After all, anti-racists teach that racism was ingrained in the nation from the start, has been a central feature of American life, and that whites, as a group, have reaped certain advantages from that system, relative to Black and brown folk. Despite the incontestable accuracy of all three statements, conservatives insist such messages are damaging to young minds.
In truth, however, the right doesn’t seek to protect children so much as pacify them. Conservatives know that when young people learn of injustice — especially before we’ve given them the tools to rationalize it and justify the inequities it spawned — their innate sense of fairness typically compels them to take action.
And that’s the problem.
Learning how social structures have perpetuated inequity leads students to seek to change them. But that means altering arrangements that benefit those on top of the pile. And if the system is working for you, you won’t likely embrace a growing awareness that it might be harming others. Far better to strangle empathy as a baby before it learns to walk.
There have always been those made nervous by the thought of young people developing a sensitivity to injustice. As a child, I experienced the reticence of adults to tell the truth or even allow a child to discover it themselves. There was no critical race theory yet. But even an exploration of the basic facts of this country’s story was too much for some.
It was 1977, and the miniseries Roots, based on the Alex Haley book, had captured the nation’s attention. Though I enjoyed the televised version, as an avid reader, I dove into the hardcover, all 500+ pages of it, voraciously consuming this American story of family, nation, and the twisted path by which both had come to be.
In my school (only recently integrated, thanks to the initiation of busing a few years earlier), that an 8-year-old white child should be reading this book was alarming, at least to the two white third-grade teachers. The looks they shot my way have stuck with me for nearly 45 years, as have the comments.
Oh sure, they couched their consternation with concern that the book was distracting me from my lessons. But something about their demeanor suggested they wouldn’t have been nearly so upset had I been reading anything else. That seeing me read Roots proved a source of pleasure to the fourth-grade teachers — both of them Black women — made their white colleagues even more uncomfortable. And again, for reasons not difficult to discern.
Roots, by centering the Black experience and foregrounding the system of enslavement, was doubly subversive. First, it demanded of white America a recognition that there were other stories in need of being told. Second, it insisted those stories were also ours, whether or not we wished to acknowledge them.
If Black America would grapple with the meaning of Kunta Kinte, Fiddler, Kizzy, and Chicken George, so too would white America have to confront our relationship to John Reynolds and Ames, the overseer who whips Kunta until he agrees his name is Toby.
As a child, I looked at that relationship, in Haley’s story, and then the story of my own family. And for me, things would never be the same.
What my teachers likely would have preferred, and what the MAGA-verse would prefer now, are the versions of history with which they grew up. On this account, progress is inevitable, America is always noble, even when falling short of its ideals, and our leaders were virtuous, if flawed, “men of their times.”
These are versions like the one presented in the first book I ever read, cover-to-cover, as a child: Meet Andrew Jackson.
Therein, we learn how the 7th President overcame illness, exhibited bravery in the Battle of New Orleans, and attained the nation’s highest office against the odds. Along the way, we also learn that he fought off Creek Indians and adopted a young Indian child.
Although critics of anti-racist education insist they only seek a balanced and fact-based presentation of history, free from ideological embellishment, books like Meet Andrew Jackson give the lie to such claims. Facts and balance would require mentioning several things, none of which conservatives would want added and which they would likely ban now.
For instance, when Jackson led his troops into battle against the Red Sticks at Horseshoe Bend, he announced his goal was to “exterminate them.” Then, after essentially doing so, those troops mutilated the dead, chopping off noses to get an accurate kill count and slicing strips of flesh from their bodies for use as bridle reins.
Additionally, the only reason the Creek child, Lyncoya, needed new parents was that Jackson’s forces had killed his real ones. And if we’re just trying to be factual, teachers should probably mention that when Jackson wrote his wife to inform her he was sending the child back to Nashville, he referred to this family addition as a “pet.”
These are facts. I am not offering ideological spin on the mutilation of human bodies or the viewing of an indigenous child as comparable to the family basset hound. Although I can’t imagine anything wrong with flatly condemning both, I only mention them here to show what factual history looks like.
But even without editorial, no conservative would want this material mentioned in schools. Not because it’s “too heavy” for children — they are willing to discuss the Creek Wars in terms that deify Jackson and mention his adoption of Lyncoya — but because truth detracts from the goals of “patriotic education,” as Donald Trump calls it.
So too with Jackson’s participation in the system of chattel slavery. Meet Andrew Jackson mentions it, again indicating that even in the hands of traditionalists, weighty subject matter is raised. But how enslavement is discussed gives the game away.
According to the traditional version, “Some people in the North were saying it was not right to own slaves, but Jackson felt the way most other Southerners did,” which means, presumably, we ought not judge him too harshly. And anyway, the book assures, Jackson “called his slaves family.”
Of course, what goes unmentioned is that when some of Jackson’s family opted for freedom and escaped the concentration camp where they toiled, their “father” was given to taking out ads offering rewards for their capture and return. On one occasion, he offered $10 extra for every 100 lashings the captor would give the runaway family member, up to 300.
To mention these facts is not to distort history for leftist purposes — it is to tell the truth. It is the right that spins, noting that Jackson owned other people, while diminishing the importance of that fact in the same breath. To the right, the worst we should say about the trafficking of human beings is, in effect, “mistakes were made.” But this transformation of horrific injustice into the equivalent of a Shit Happens bumper sticker is a choice — and an editorial one at that.
They are the ones who twist facts for ideological ends, as with the conclusion of Meet Andrew Jackson, where the authors claim (based on no historical authority and against all common sense) that when Jackson died, his “slaves sang a sad, old song.” Yes, the right will mention the ugliness, but only to then wrap it in the finery of nonchalance.
For people such as this, history is a weapon with which to reinforce preferred memories — a tool of erasure. To be honest about Jackson, about the founders, about the entirely racist motivation for Southern secession — which Texas only began teaching a few years ago — is to confront children with the realization that someone has been lying to them.
And once kids know you lied about one thing, they begin to wonder: how else might you be deceiving them? And once they ask that and start digging for the answers, it’s game over for those who would prefer to keep them in the dark.
The right seeks to paper over the past because only by doing so can it rationalize the present. It is why they root their politic in nostalgia for a fictive time of uncomplicated innocence — why they elevate amnesia to the level of a national sacrament.
By lying to children and themselves, conservatives seek more than control over the telling of history. They seek control over the making of it from this point forward.
It is up to the rest of us to stop them by insisting that our children are capable of handling the truth and desperately in need of learning it, as are we all.
Previously Published on aninjusticemag
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