On the Mythologizing of United States HistoryRoundup
tags: teaching history, 1776 commission
Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.
On January 18th of this year, the same day the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the outgoing Trump administration released The 1776 Report from the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. The drafters of the report argue that the nation “requires a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history of those principles that are ‘accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.’” The commission, a response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, seeks to “Make America Great Again” by restoring “patriotic” education to the classroom. While the report comments on the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s regarding voting rights and other issues, the authors compare the post-Civil Rights era and policies such as affirmative action to John C. Calhoun: “Among the distortions [following the Civil Rights Movement] was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of ‘group rights’ not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers.”
Shortly after Trump’s exit from the White House, the Biden administration rescinded the 1776 Commission and its report. And though this effort is laudable, scholars and activists know this form of anti-intellectual whitewashing does not suddenly disappear. In Arkansas, state representative Mark Lowery proposed HB1231, or The Saving American History Act, which would ban the use of public funds for teaching the 1619 Project and decrease funds to schools and institutions that choose to teach it as part of their curriculum. The bill calls the 1619 Project a “distortion of the United States of America” and “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history which threatens the integrity of the Union.” The bill continues by stating, “The State of Arkansas has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the history of the United States of America in public schools and forming young people into knowledge and patriotic citizens.”
The desire to present “an accurate account” of the past and to educate “patriotic citizens” is nothing new. It is a means of controlling the historical narrative and suppressing progress. Writers and activists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and William Apess, among others, confronted the mythologizing of United States history during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Close to two hundred years before Lowery told reporters that “no historical proof” exists to argue that the United States “was founded on the backs of slaves and on the concept of white supremacy,” Walker, in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), points out that while whites were accepted under “all men are created equal,” he retorted, “we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!! to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus, go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!” These attacks on works such as the 1619 Project are nothing new, as they continue the tradition of mythologizing US history to support and bolster white supremacy.
On January 25, the Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control voted to reject a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund the program “Who Gets to Vote?” Lafayette was the only parish to reject the grant. The program was designed to “engage members of the general public in conversations on the history of voting—and efforts to suppress the vote—in the United States.” However, the library board rejected the grant because the speakers were “extremely far left leaning” and there was no one there to “represent the other side.” Dr. Theodore Foster at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette wrote a discussion guide for one of the program’s books and told The Advocate that the board’s rejection of the grant “speaks to a larger anti-intellectualism that we’ve seen across the country that would seek to restrict access to broaden the public’s literacy about the right to vote.” Part of that education deals with the history of voter suppression in the United States.
I am a native Louisianian, and I am white. I never learned about the racial violence and voter suppression that occurred during and after Reconstruction, nor did I learn about the massacres that continue to influence the present. I did not learn about Colfax, St. Bernard, Opelousas, the Mechanics Institute, or even the Bossier Massacre in my own hometown. I did not learn about these events, even though I grew up and went to college in Louisiana. I did not know about these events until I read Frank Yerby’s The Vixens (1947) and educated myself. The Bossier Massacre occurred in September 1868 when white supremacists killed more than 160 Black men, women, and children in an effort to suppress the vote, which followed the ratifying of the 1868 Louisiana Constitution and preceding the 1868 Presidential Election. The violent suppression worked, and out of close to 2,000 registered Republicans in Bossier Parish, only one vote was cast for the Republican ticket of Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. No marker exists commemorating those murdered during the Bossier Massacre. In Colfax, the marker mentions the three white men and 150 Black men who died, but concludes by stating, “This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
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