If American History Needs Heroes, Why Aren't We Teaching about the Abolitionists?Roundup
tags: slavery, Civil War, abolition, teaching history
Stephanie Coontz, a professor emerita of history at Evergreen State College in Washington, is the author of the forthcoming book “For Better AND Worse: The Problematic Past and Uncertain Future of Marriage.” This piece is adapted from the essay “Why Learning the History of Slavery in America Doesn’t Have to Be Depressing.”
As a historian in the age of the 1619 Project and the debates over “critical race theory,” I find many of the audiences I address fall into one of two camps. Some celebrate American exceptionalism and resist dwelling on horrors like slavery or settler colonialism. Others primarily see a centuries-long saga of white supremacism and oppression.
The shameful institution of slavery must loom large in any honest account of American history. But so should the struggle of both Black and white abolitionists to end that institution. Recognizing those who fought from the very beginning to extend the ideal of equality beyond white men is essential to understanding the American story. We shouldn’t be afraid of schoolchildren learning why our nation needed those heroic reformers.
And yet, since January, legislators in more than half the states have introduced bills forbidding schools from teaching that America’s founding documents had anything to do with defending slavery or from discussing any other “divisive concepts.” Typical is the wording of the Florida and South Dakota bills, which prohibit use of material that makes anyone “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of “actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
This is a new twist on old efforts by political demagogues to stoke white racial anxieties. Over the past 100 years we have heard that “they” are coming to rape “our” wives and daughters, take “our” jobs, waste “our” tax money, steal “our” wallets, and murder us at random. Now, it appears, they’re coming to hurt our feelings!
But although studying the history of slavery and settler colonialism ought to be disturbing, it doesn’t have to be demoralizing. We need to tell the full story of slavery because without doing so there is no way to understand the heroism of those who fought for equal rights. The only people who should feel “discomfort” in learning American history are individuals who refuse to build upon the efforts of those early visionaries. A case in point is the difference between today’s White evangelical leaders and their forbears, who actually did believe that Black Lives Matter.