The History Lesson in an Offensive Fashion Design


Damon B. Akins is an assistant professor of history at Guilford College. Cross-posted from the Greensboro News & Record

A week ago, fashion designer and Greensboro native Mark McNairy found himself at the center of a social media firestorm. His new clothing line for The Gap drew sharp criticism for a solid black T-shirt with the words “Manifest Destiny” on the front. As a historian of the American West, this is a core part of my teaching, and while my students would find this obvious, it is nonetheless worth a few words on why Manifest Destiny is a fundamentally offensive fashion statement.

Manifest Destiny was a phrase coined by John O’Sullivan in the lead-up to the Mexican War (1846-1848). He touted westward expansion as a critical part of the United States’ inevitable fulfillment of “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

The concept hinges on two closely related elements: that expansion was natural -- in fact, inevitable -- and that it was ordained by God. But Manifest Destiny was neither natural nor inevitable. Rather, it was the justification for a Herculean political, cultural and military effort to conquer and incorporate the American West and its peoples. It produced genocidal massacres against native people and the outright theft of native land across the West. It led to the disenfranchisement of the region’s Mexican inhabitants and sought to pave the way for the expansion of slavery.

This is not the sort of thing one should wear on a T-shirt. (Gap pulled the shirt from its stores last Tuesday.)

Although North Carolina is not in the West, it is where Manifest Destiny first learned to walk. Andrew Jackson and James Polk, the two presidents most responsible for the idea, are both native sons. It should have been impossible for a smart kid like Mark McNairy to have missed this history during his middle school, high school and college years in the state, where he claimed to have first learned about Manifest Destiny.

McNairy apologized via Twitter for comments he had made there (but not for the T-shirt) and claimed, “It hurt me deeply to be called a racist.” If we take him at his word and assume that he did not intend this to be racist (and set aside momentarily the power of unintentional racism itself), then this is exactly the sort of ignorance a vibrant, diverse and rich public education system is designed to counter.

But it is also exactly the type of complicated subject matter that falls victim to funding cuts, teaching to the test and ideological battles over national narratives of “progress” in public education. In 2010, North Carolina was 45th in the nation in per-pupil funding and declining as average figures rose across the nation. Ideologically conservative elements are working to promote a narrowly sanitized version of history in state schools.

The John Locke Foundation’s North Carolina History Project maintains a Web-based encyclopedia of North Carolina history, but Manifest Destiny, Indian removal and the Trail of Tears are not important enough to merit their own entries. In an entry on President Polk, Manifest Destiny is described positively as “the belief that the United States enjoyed a special dispensation and even imperative to extend its boundaries westward, even all the way to the Pacific coast.” Polk, a “remarkable and highly effective president,” we are taught, championed Manifest Destiny in order to excite and unify the nation.

Perhaps this is the sort of history McNairy studied thirty-five years ago and sought to capture on his T-shirt. The Locke Foundation’s founding chairman, Art Pope, leads a contingency of recent appointments to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors’ Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions.

His presence promises to strengthen ongoing efforts to influence the UNC system, on the one hand through an ideologically driven effort to do away with the sorts of academic programs that have helped to promote cultural diversity in the curricula (particularly ethnic studies), and on the other hand, through reducing financial set-asides from tuition increases, and effectively denying financial aid to many of those priced out of the UNC system.

While the sort of ignorance that turns genocidal campaigns of conquest and dispossession into hipster fashion is unfortunately not specific to North Carolina, the current direction of educational policy in the state runs the risk of miseducating and marginalizing children, flattening the rich diversity of our state’s history and choking off the sorts of economic and cultural growth we profess to want.

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