It would seem that history — the full range of events that have occurred before today — is a given. What happened has happened. But, recent efforts by conservative groups, like the Tea Party, to literally rewrite history suggests that history may not be a fixed, universal set of truths. Efforts have been made — unfortunately, with great success — in Texas and Arizona to change what is and can be taught in schools and colleges: the removal of slavery from history, or at least portraying it as a positive aspect of US history; banning Ethnic Studies because it is seen as promoting separatism, anarchy, and resentment.
The Tea Party movement has now set its sights on Tennessee to strip school textbooks of the ugly past of enslavement and genocide in the US:
The group demanded, as they had in January of last year, that Tennessee lawmakers change state laws governing school curricula. The group called for textbook selection criteria to include: “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
The reference to events and experiences “which actually occurred” is interesting here. There seems to be no denial of the difficult and oppressive realities faced by people of color throughout US history. So, why remove people of color? It seems the group is not simply hiding things that happened; rather, the group is attempting to remove these realities from history — as true history — all together:
According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.”
“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.
During the news conference more than two dozen Tea Party activists handed out material that said, “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”
They argue that, today, what little is taught in school classrooms about the enslavement of Black people, the genocide, forced relocation, and forced assimilation of people of the First Nation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and so forth, is nothing more than fables and distortions. And, as such, school curricula and textbooks must be changed to reflect what really happened.
Power And The Social Construction, Reconstruction, And Deconstruction Of History
The success of these conservative initiatives in Texas and Arizona demonstrates that parts of history can be rewritten or even erased. But, we can think of history as both a battlefield and the product of battle. Just as we constantly fight over defining what is truth today, we constantly fight over defining what was true in the past. Yet, history is not an equal playing field. Those who are in power — whites, men, the wealthy, heterosexuals, and so on — are afforded the greatest control over what we know and what we learn. Dominant groups are often placed in the position to judge what is true or what is not, leaving marginalized groups regularly on the side of having to “argue their case,” because their perspective is not a given. As these recent explicit examples of combat over history point out, “history is written by the victors.”
The twin to power is privilege. As children grow up in these states, denied any education on enslavement, genocide, exclusion, oppression, and disenfranchisement in US history, they will be left to learn about such things on their own outside of school. This means knowing even less about one’s ancestors for children of color. But, white privilege affords white children even more freedom from having to know about the history and experiences of people unlike themselves. As if we do not already see widespread ignorance about the history of people of color in the US, we may see a generation of whites and racial and ethnic minorities wholly unaware of the ugly past of this country.
And, Tennessee could be next. Just in time for Black History Month.