Lately I’ve done a lot of thinking about history. World and American history precisely. There have been a number of things prompting these musings including the recent debate over the confederate flag, my current reading material (Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee), some random comments I’ve read on a local community Facebook page and a movie called The Giver.
As a child in Oklahoma one of the class requirements was Oklahoma History. In Oklahoma we learn some about the Trail of Tears. What I remember learning was the government, wanting the Indian lands for themselves, forced “The Five Civilized Tribes” out of their homelands, primarily on foot, west to the other side of the Mississippi river. I learned that thousands died of famine and disease before they made it safely to Oklahoma Territory. Skipped in our history lesson was the tribes were living peacefully in their homelands in the southeastern part of the U.S. which were also the slave-owning states. Because of the widespread use of slaves the cotton industry was expanding. Southern states wanted Indian lands for their cotton fields. Essentially, it was greed that caused the Indian Removal Act and others like it to pass and allow the government to displace an entire culture of people, treat them as lesser beings and cause a near extinction of a race who lived in the U.S. well before white southerners.
As an adult who devours history much more than I ever did as a student I am finding more and more that the ugliest parts of our history have been skimmed over presumably to avoid the embarrassment of our ancestors’ ignorance. It is my opinion that this is the worst thing you can do to the future of our country and our citizens.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Other facts that were skated over in my history lessons were both The Holocaust and America’s entry into World War II. It failed to connect with me as a high school student and even as an honors history student in college the overlap of these two major events in history. Regarding The Holocaust I was taught that Hitler was an evil man who didn’t like anyone who wasn’t “white” by his definition. He sent Jewish, gay and other minority groups he felt lesser than himself to concentration camps where they were abused, starved and murdered. Hitler’s German troops began their part of WWII in September of 1939. Lives were being lost rapidly. The United States knew of this. For many years I was under the assumption that WWII began because of the attack on Pearl Harbor on that infamous day in December of 1941. The fact that much of the world was ALREADY at war before we joined forces against the “bullies” was never really impressed upon us. The fact that millions were losing their lives because of the rule of a tyrant before the U.S. felt a need to aid these people was never mentioned. The fact that the U.S. didn’t even enter the war in order to stop this massacre was left out of our education entirely. The end of the Holocaust was merely a side effect, not a well planned out success. These huge parts of history were treated as separate events that, though overlapped in time, didn’t have effect on one another. The U.S. simply responded to a threat on our home soil. We did not join the war because our allies needed our help or because it was the right thing to do. I’ve heard so much about the credit taken by the U.S. for the end of WWII, but the U.S. certainly doesn’t mention that millions of lives were unnecessarily lost and another entire culture of people were nearly extinguished before we bothered to help them. Approximately 6 million lives were lost by order of Adolf Hitler. How many history books have failed to mention the number that could have been saved if the U.S. had joined the war sooner?
I must mention that I am not a fan of military force or war. I do not believe that the U.S. needs to get involved in every dispute between countries. However I do believe that as a civilized nation we CANNOT EVER be a spectator when genocide is happening.
Then there’s the big gaping wound that much of America likes to sweep under the rug. The biggest embarrassment to me, as an American, about my country. Slavery. History class taught us that black men, women and children were brought by boat from Africa and sold to white southerners as field hands and house workers. History taught us that the northern states, though still prejudice against black people in many ways, tried to force the south to treat their slaves as hired hands instead of owned property giving their slaves the right to choose to find a different path for their lives or better themselves. The Civil War occurred and again too many lives were lost. The north wanting to force the south to work as one unit under one government which would also make it illegal in all the southern states to own slaves. The south fought, as I’ve heard many times even lately, to preserve the southern way of life. The way of life they were wanting to preserve was their “right” to own slaves. To OWN black people and treat them as they wished. This included selling off their children. They would pay one price for a slave and have that slave as a laborer without pay for their rest of their lives. Cotton, which was the largest industry in the south, was hard on the hands and backs. To bring in crops took long hot hours and many bloody fingers and slaves were used as free labor after their initial purchase. The south didn’t want to give up their money, their massive plantation houses and status that may have been hurt by having to actually pay workers for bringing in their cotton crops. Millions of lives lost because of greed and disrespect of an entire race of people.
I have learned so much about slavery since my early days as a history student. I’ve learned of the beatings that either left a person dead or wishing for death. I’ve learned of the hangings that were witnessed by (and even enjoyed by the white) children in the south. I’ve learned about the rape and torture of women and children and the husbands and sons unable to save those they loved from such atrocities. Many slaves had a deep belief in a god that had a plan for them and would help them carry the burden of their existence. Music was a huge part of the culture. Spiritual and work songs were a part of daily life. Sadly the church in the south was one of the biggest supporters of slavery, finding biblical passages to condone the ownership of what they saw as a lesser being. As average high school history students it was never impressed upon us the amount of resilience and fortitude many slaves managed to find in the face of such ignorance and brutality. We were taught about this scar on our history as if it were a small hiccup in our growth as a country.
Even though slaves were eventually freed prejudice and segregation was still the norm. History students learn names like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and their part in moving toward the end of segregation. However what did we learn about the Ku Klux Klan lynchings and bombings? Many members of the KKK were respected members of society and church elders upholding what they believed to be christian values. How much were we taught about the brave Freedom Riders? How many of us knew about the number of rapes of black women because the law didn’t recognize it as rape unless it was a white woman? This part of American history causes me to feel a need to apologize for my ancestors’ ignorance, but none of this embarrassment was brought on by anything I was taught in my history classes.
I believe at this point in our society we are too many generations past some of the most horrific parts of history to truly understand what we did wrong and many people wish to keep it that way.
Even as a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma I had no idea that in 1921 Tulsa had its own race riot. An estimated 300 people died and 800 injured because of an ASSUMPTION that was made by a “witness” when a black man and a white woman had been in an elevator together. There is no way to know to this day what actually happened between the two people, but 10,000 black people from 35 blocks in Tulsa were left homeless because over 1200 houses were burned down in what was then one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in America. Not once was this mentioned in Oklahoma History class.
History is amazing and it is also ugly. It’s filled with pain and growth and destruction and discovery. History, as it really was, is easily accessible if you want to know it, but it is not readily passed out to us when it can impact our growing minds the most. We are raising children that have no idea what Ms. Parks endured simply by refusing to give up her seat on a bus. We are raising young women who take for granted their reproductive rights, right to vote and seeing women in positions of power. They do not know about glass ceilings, deaths from illegal abortions, legal rape and life in “a man’s world.” We are seeing people who “dress up” as Native Americans for fun without any idea how close we came to not even having that culture among us. We are handing our nation over to an entire generation that has no idea how far we have come and how far we have left to go.
The recent passing of the ban on gay marriage is a huge stepping stone to many of us, but I have heard more than one young person shrug it off with, “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal.”
Our history is disappearing. The lives of Harriet Tubman, Matthew Shepard, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Harvey Milk, Hedy Epstein, Frederick Douglass, Tom Hayden and Gloria Steinem are fading into obscurity. Sadly, we are letting it happen.
We MUST encourage our education systems to teach the harsh truths along with the victories. Instead of making U.S. History about memorizing names, dates and places teach the kids how far we have come and how anyone who decided to make a difference left their mark on history so they too may want to leave their mark for the next generation. Stop skimming over the parts that show ignorance and intolerance. Show our youth a clear picture of what life was like 30, 60, 100 and more years ago so hopefully they will appreciate the world they live in today. Show them how much more we need to change and encourage them to make a difference in their own way.
We must, as parents and members of the generations who still remember some of these heartbreaking events, teach the children the meaning of doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. We need to encourage our children to study history, not just the glorified and glamorized version that Hollywood hands to us, but from the words written by the men, women and children who lived it. This is just another reason to encourage children to read. Encourage children to seek truth instead of one side of a story.
Let’s not let our history disappear. Let’s not let our children and grandchildren live in a world ignorant of our struggles and growth thus facilitating the act of repeating the mistakes in our history. Lets keep history alive in the minds of all generations so that we will continue to move forward.
I fear for the world my daughter will be handed in adulthood. I fear for generations of people who have had the horrors of ignorance left out of their education. It’s not pretty or nice or pleasant to hear about or see pictures of, but it is essential that history not be white washed. People lost lives, families, jobs and so much more fighting to make sure we have the freedoms we have now. Freedom wasn’t only fought for on battlefields but also in our backyards and courtrooms.
We must not forget.
We must not let our history disappear.