American history is and will always be a touchy subject. This may seem cliché but it rings more true than not. Why is this so? It could be that the political heroes we idolize as children are exposed as being more flawed than we thought once we get to college classrooms. It could be that everyone’s ancestors in this country get separated into categories such as the oppressors and the oppressed or the enslaved and the slavers.
Then of course there is always the definitive “history is written by the winners” line. This could ring true for a lot of the standard history textbooks used in K-12 classrooms around the country. In regards to my own educational experience I always tell people I learned two histories growing up: the one they taught in the classroom and the one that was taught to me at home. My parents saw this as a necessity because my ancestors where the farthest thing from “winners” in the eyes of history. Therefore who better to teach the lessons of the oppressed than their descendants? While both of these lesson plans were vital to my upbringing, the history taught in my household is one I hold in much higher regard. I understand that the curriculum from the school was supposed to be inclusive and could not pander to any one demographic. Still, without my parent’s intervention I never would’ve had an appreciation for what African Americans had to go through in this country.
Connie Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney, was recently a guest on Tavis Smiley’s PBS program talking about African American history in the American school system. She had stated that slavery is not taught in school. This underlines an even greater issue of dealing with racism or the lack of dealing with it, but we will get to that later. Ms. Rice shared a conversation she had with a white teacher regarding slavery. The teacher stated that she could not bring herself to teach the subject for fear of hurting the egos of white children. While one could understand why it’d be hard to explain something as brutal as slavery in the Americas to children, the lesson doesn’t have to be an emphasis on everything bad. Ms. Rice even suggested teaching all aspects of the institution. For example: white Quakers along with other whites who helped hide escaped slaves.
Thinking back to the history that was taught during my prep school career I am always disappointed. Even when I reached Advanced Placement level history classes in high school there was always a sense of something missing in the lesson plan. There are days where I think to myself “could some of the material that was incorporated in my private history lessons be used in modern classrooms”? The answer is always yes because at the end of the day African American history is American history. And believing that it is not, or keeping vital information out of the history books is more harmful than we think.
On June 17th, 2015 a young white male by the name of Dylann Roof killed nine churchgoers and wounded one during a bible study session at the iconic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The 21 year old apparently waited an hour after entering the church and interacting with members of the congregation before committing such a violent act. His intent was to remove blacks from the face of the planet because he viewed them as the problem. During the shooting the witnesses said that Roof was making claims such as “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country”. The next morning Roof was found at a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina and taken into custody. One unconfirmed report claimed that while in police custody Roof said his intent was to start a race war.
Like many who woke up to the news of the shootings the next morning I was overcome with many emotions. Of the things that were running through my head, the one that seemed most prominent was the feeling of powerlessness. How could this have happened in the 21st century? Is there any place where I know my loved ones will be safe? Could this happen at my local church? How can we stop it from ever happening again?
A couple days removed from the shooting there were reports that Roof wrote a manifesto shortly before he went on his rampage. Usually a manifesto is something I’d dismiss and label it as a lunatic’s “diary”. This time around I wanted to pick Roof’s brain. Better yet, there was a need to see what made this hateful person tick even if it was just a glimpse.
Thanks to the internet I was able to download a copy of Roof’s words. There was an expectation before reading the manifesto of being shocked but not surprised by this murder’s mad ideas on race relations and politics. Once I finished, I felt both shocked and not surprised but something else lingered into my brain: disappointment. This disappointment is derived from Roof’s detailed but heavily flawed account on the history and plight of African-Americans in this country. In these writings he makes claims such as black are only capable of being volatile, stupid, and filled with testosterone. In regards to our origins he claims that, according to the the narratives he came across, slavery was not so bad. He also brings up the fact that it was the elite who owned slaves (which is true) but every white person today is treated as if they had someone in their family who owned a slave plantation. He harps on the fact that in his research he found that most plantations did not allow whipping and a mentions a single case where an ex-slave recalled the day his mistress died was one of the saddest days of his life. Oh and let’s not forget about segregation! According to Roof, segregation was not a bad thing at all! Segregation was not trying to hold back the negro, it was there to protect white people from the negro. It not only protected white people from blacks, but it kept white people from stooping down to their level.
Needless to say getting through this biased and insulting document was no easy task. I was so mad after the first read through I had to get out of the house and walk around my neighborhood for 20 minutes. During my leisurely stroll I wondered “what was the exact reason why the article ticked me off”? After coming back to the manifesto a day later I had to look no further past the first paragraph to pinpoint my frustration with Roof’s thoughts. “Me and White friends would sometimes would watch things that would make us think that ‘blacks were the real racists’ and other elementary thoughts like this, but there was no real understanding behind it”.
Wait, what? No real understanding behind it? To make matters worse Roof goes on to say that it was the Trayvon Martin case that was his true “awakening”. He says that Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, was clearly in the right and black on white crimes were being overlooked by the media. These unaddressed hate crimes were not only a problem in the states but also in England, France, and other Western European countries.
So let me get this straight? It took until 2012, when this kid was 17, to finally have some revelation about race? There was nothing that could’ve been taught in this kids school system before? No programs that explained the gritty details of how a slave was punished each time they ran away? No books of other slave narratives besides the ones Roof oh so biasedly picked? I’m not even asking for the entire African-American existence,because South Carolina on it’s own has a unique yet disturbing history dealing with blacks in the state.
We can start at the scene of the crime. Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC was founded by slaves as a gathering place where they could find sanctuary from a brutal and repressive institution. It’s a little known fact that slaves were actually forbidden from gathering in peaceful assembly because of the planters fear of resistance. One of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, who was a free black man who bought his freedom with his lottery winnings was hung along with 34 others when it was discovered that his congregation was plotting a slave revolt.
South Carolina also has the honor of being both the first state to secede from the Union and fired the first shots in the civil war. They passed draconian “black codes” such as the Negro seamen’s act in 1827. This act required commercial and merchant ships to remand it’s black crew over to a local magistrate while the ship was in the Port of Charleston. If the captain didn’t pay a duty to the magistrate upon his departure, free blacks, who were often subjects of the crown (England) were sold into slavery. We almost went to war again with England over this heinous law.
American history is and will always be a touchy subject. But it is usually the things that are the hardest to talk about that deserve the most attention. One may think that one extra in depth African American history lesson wouldn’t have stopped Dylann Roof from murdering those nine innocent church goers. Truth be told I’d probably give that person the benefit of the doubt. What is over is over and what is done is done.
But what about an inclusive history lesson for future generations? How many lives could be saved amongst them? Could a better method of teaching history in the K-12 school system really make that big a difference? Well looking at the racial climate in this country today it wouldn’t hurt to try and have history textbooks that were brutally honest. Textbooks that have detailed descriptions of history’s winners and losers. Textbooks that take a further look into the lives of both the enslaved and the oppressed as opposed to just highlighting the accomplishments of the slavers and the oppressors. Textbooks that treat political icons as the flawed men and women they were, not the false deities we make them out to be. It’s nice that most places of higher education have honest course material in regards to American history available.Still, injustices of slavery and the methodical assassination of the black mind, body, and soul should not be postponed until a mandatory class to complete general elective requirements. To say this would completely eradicate people with the ideology of Dylann Roof would be silly. Those with ill intent will continue to haunt this planet till the last of days. But if we could dwindle the number down from millions to just a couple thousand, isn’t that a victory in itself? Because when we get to that point we’ll have more people who no longer have the excuse of “no real understanding”.