Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bombardment.

We've just been bulldozed with homework. Damm's ordeal began last week, mine began tonight as I received new assignments (online classes are fun that way) and realized last week was too easy. I should'v seen it coming. Why are we doing this again? Oh, right, better life for our kids and increased mental acuity.

Anyway, one of our latest quizzes for my Teaching History class was interesting. We have to answer all five questions beforehand because he gives two minutes to copy and paste your answer to the single question he asks. I spent two hours working on my answers and then less than a minute completing the quiz. Felt wrong, somehow. All questions/answers derive from "Lies My History Teacher Told Me". If you haven't read it do so, it's worth your time and effort. Disclaimer: all questions come from my teacher, not the author of "Lies" (James Loewen) and all answers come from yours truly. All errors are mine, not Loewen's:)

1. What internal debate did Lincoln struggle with? What teaching benefits are there if such information was brought into a class of 11th graders?

Lincoln struggled with the issue of race: “In life Abraham Lincoln wrestled with the race question more openly than any other president except perhaps Thomas Jefferson, and, unlike Jefferson, Lincoln’s actions sometimes matched his words.” (p.182)

The teaching benefits of recognizing Lincoln’s struggle would be enormous. Students would learn that racism wasn’t something that belonged solely to extremists but “has been ‘normal’ throughout our history.” (p.182). They would see that Lincoln’s views changed during the course of the Civil War, illustrating how a person steeped in the culture of their time could rise above it.

They would also learn that our past was not perfect. According to Loewen, textbooks avoid issues of right and wrong when it comes to our past history (p.185). Lincoln turned the Civil War into an issue of right vs. wrong, freedom vs. enslavement (p.188). Racism in America continued because the South was allowed, by the North, to rewrite history in order to assuage its conscience. How different could our history have been if the nation had been forced to accept that slavery was wrong? That monumental injustice had been done to the slaves? More importantly, after seeing how the United States failed its black citizens, students today would perhaps be able to recognize that history is causal, not static, and that decisions made today have the power to drastically affect the future.

2. Describe how the picture on page 109 contrasts with what is taught in a typical American History book.

In the picture, the white children are clinging to their “savage” adoptive parents because they are being forcibly returned to white society. Textbooks, while today avoiding calling Native Americans “savages” (p.115), still do not retreat from their white supremacist viewpoint. According to the textbooks, civilization was something we brought to the Natives, ignoring entirely that “American Indians … [were] important intellectual antecedents of our political structure” (p.113).

I grew up in Virginia. My family and I visited Jamestown, Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, and the various small settlement sites that populate that area regularly. We studied some of the various Native American tribes that had populated our area. Neither the historical sites nor the textbooks we studied hinted at the possibility that the Native Americans were anything but primitive peoples, something to be scared of and defended against at all costs. I never knew that the Iroquois League had requested that the colonies stop bickering and form some type of government that they could actually deal with (p.109). I had no idea that white attacks on Native Americans happened with such ferocity, or that the Indian wars had such an impact on our society (p.131). “By downplaying Indian wars, textbooks help us forget that we wrested the continent from Native Americans” (p.131). Textbooks lead students to believe that if only the Native Americans had acculturated, they would’ve been accepted into white society. As Loewen points out, “The problem was not Native failure to acculturate. In reality, many European Americans did not really want Indians to acculturate. It wasn’t in their interest.” (p.128)

By blatantly ignoring the story of the “losers” during the conquest of North America, students are led to believe a grossly distorted version of history. Native Americans are stereotyped and made into the villains, while their cultural contributions are largely ignored. One thing I have learned while studying American history is that my heritage isn’t just white. It’s an amalgamation of many cultures, and I’m proud of that. I suspect many students would be too, yet that knowledge is denied them.

3. What evidence does Loewen provide regarding anti-Black sentiment in the post-Civil War South? (I found five; give me at least two) What does EACH tell you?

One area of Reconstruction that is consistently downplayed is white violence against the former slaves. Loewen points out that “In Hinds Country, Mississippi, alone, whites killed an average of one African American a day, many of them servicemen, during Confederate Reconstruction” (p.160). Lynchings were rampant, and African Americans had no recourse (p.167). This violence, “not slavery, marked the beginnings of what some social scientists have called the ‘tangle of pathology’ in African American society.” (p.167)

The “Mississippi plan” denied African Americans citizenship in 1890 (p.163). The “separate but equal” ideology in the South (and the North as well) was a farce, which one textbook admitted: “The problem, of course, was that there really could never be such a thing as ‘separate but equal’ facilities for the two races. When any race was kept apart from another, it was deprived of its equality” (p.163). Not content with segregation, white supremacists attacked black education, burning buildings and killing the teachers (p.160).

What all of these examples tell me is that almost every aspect of Southern society was dedicated to the perpetuation of white domination. Whites felt they were the “master race” and were willing to resort to violence to maintain their precious status quo, not content with letting their legislative system back down from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. What is ironic is that when Hitler arose and began systematically purging any people group not belonging to his own “master race”, we condemned him while continuing our own racial domination.

4. What was the real cause of racism and trying to bring an end to it in the South during Reconstruction?

The real cause of racism was one of white supremacy and a social system built upon slave labor. “White Southerners founded the Confederacy on the ideology of white supremacy” (p.193). Alexander Stephen’s famous Cornerstone Speech proclaimed that “Our new government’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery-subordination to the superior race-is his natural and normal condition” (p.193).

Reconstruction was an attempt to equalize the races, but it was not to integrate the blacks into white society. Rather, “the problem of Reconstruction was integrating Confederates, not African Americans, into the new order” (p.161). Loewen hits the point right on the nose: “As soon as the federal government stopped addressing the problem of racist whites, Reconstruction ended” (p.160). A new memory took over, that remembered the men and women who had risked their lives to work among the former slaves as “carpetbaggers” and those Southerners who belonged to the antiracist, Republican party as “scalawags”. They were shown as moving South in pursuit of wealth at the expense of the destitute South and as traitors, although “Everyone who supported black rights in the South during Reconstruction did so at personal risk” (p.201). The white supremacists would not accept that racial idealism was the prime motivator for Reconstruction (p.201).

Rather than forcing the nation to cop to its sins, as South Africa did after apartheid, the nation allowed the white supremacists to reconstruct history and poison future race relations.


5. Explain the misperceptions made about John Brown by the UDC AND in American History textbooks and why. What views did people who knew Brown have about him?

Why would a white man fight for the black man? He must be crazy. Or so textbook authors thought until recently. “ …the insanity with which historians have charged John Brown was never psychological. It was ideological. Brown’s actions made no sense to textbook writers between 1890 and about 1970. To make no sense is to be crazy” (p.177). The UDC goes further, and implied that “the slaves themselves were not sympathetic to the cause of abolition” (p.176). Poor John Brown. He was insane and the blacks for whom he fought and died couldn’t have cared less. Thus have the UDC, an instrument of colossal damage to race relations, and history textbooks warped John Brown’s legacy. The reality was quite different.

John Brown was not insane. In fact Governor Wise of Virginia “said Brown showed ‘quick and clear perception,’ ‘rational premises and consecutive reasoning,’ ‘composure and self-possession’ “ (p.176). He garnered “considerable support from enslaved African Americans around Harper’s Ferry” (p.176) and “after the raid, local African Americans continued the resistance to slavery that Brown’s raid had triggered” (p.176).

The real problem, which Brown recognized, was that “Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, it would have been all right” (p.178). Instead he chose to fight for a race that many of his day considered to be less than human. He willingly died for what he believed, knowing that it would have a “moral force of its own” (p.178). “As the war came, as thousands of Americans found themselves making the same commitment to face death that John Brown had made, the force of his example took on new relevance” (p.179). Thoreau compared Brown with Jesus of Nazareth (p.178), and indeed their fates are incredibly similar, which I think is how Brown wanted it to be.

Yet his powerful legacy, recognized during his own lifetime (pp.177-178), has been besmirched and trampled upon, because as the memory of the war faded no one wanted to believe that a man would die for the “racially inferior”. “Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s was white America freed from enough of its racism to accept that a white person did not have to be crazy to die for black equality” (p.179).

2 comments:

Boobah said...

"What is ironic is that when Hitler arose and began systematically purging any people group not belonging to his own “master race”, we condemned him while continuing our own racial domination."

Except, of course, that Hitler wasn't condemned for his racial policies, at least not widely. The folks crass enough to bring them up were told that he couldn't possibly mean them. His loudest critics in the West were complaining that Germany had become National Socialist, rather than international Communist; many of these self-same critics were fans of Hitler from September 1939 to June 1941, which by an amazing coincidence happens to be the time period the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force.

Which doesn't mean that that's not what your professor taught and expects regurgitated.

Lies My Teacher Told Me is an interesting book to be sure, but it's full of misleading truths and... odd... leaps of logic of its own. The author frequently seemed to be attacking strawmen to make his points; he certainly had his own political agenda in mind when he wrote it, one that he felt schools didn't do enough to promote.

It's probably needless to say, but it's also an agenda that I disagree with.

Wulfa said...

Every semester you hand over a fistful of money, cram your head full of whatever the professor wants you to, and hope that they're not wasting your time. I haven't read widely enough on my own to accurately judge Loewen's work, and of course for this class most of my assignments are based on the book.

I'm in a class on 20th century European history, and today our professor was discussing the dominant literature of the time, which (according to what he told us) was very anti-Semite and of the "war is a cleansing force" ideology (with some exceptions such as Remarque). He pointed out that Hitler's views did not arise out of a vacuum, but were borrowed from men such as Chamberlain and Drumont (I think I spelled that correctly).

The most obvious lesson I've learned while in college is that, with some important exceptions, my opinions/views/beliefs are subject to change. Each book contributes to my corpus of knowledge, and hopefully in the end I will have a somewhat accurate idea of my subject matter.

Thank you for your comment. It's easy to lose oneself in material, and it is advantageous to having someone disagree. Makes you lift your head. Of course, now I have to stick it back in, because I have assignments:)