I’ve frequently observed that my high school history teacher taught us that the Civil War was fought between us and them. Since this was in Texas, you can probably guess which side was “us”.
In the past, I said this more or less as a joke. Not that it wasn’t true – it was very true – but my intention was to mock those history lessons, to point out that the small town where I went to high school was so far behind the times.
Now, though, as Texas and other states pass laws to prevent history teachers from telling the truth about U.S. history, this memory of my education makes me want to cry. While I was fortunate to grow up in a family that rejected the Lost Cause narrative and Jim Crow racism, the rest of the world in which I lived was defined by those lies at every turn.
I saw those lies for what they were, but I somehow managed to both assume that things were changing – it was the time of the activist Civil Rights Movement – and that some things, like monuments to the traitors who led the Confederate Army, would always be with us.
I turned out to be wrong on both counts. We did make some progress on racism, enough that these days there are many powerful African American voices that call it out regularly, but not enough to keep it from remaining a powerful force in this country and not enough to fix all the systemic racism that we are only now beginning to discuss.
And we are finally reckoning with the fact that the Civil War was an act of treason by those who wanted to continue enslaving other human beings. Despite the backlash going on from white supremacists and in some state legislatures, we’re talking about this horrific part of our history in terms I never expected to hear.
The U.S. Civil War ended over a century and a half ago, but we are only just now starting to talk about that history in something resembling honest terms – and only some of us are doing that much. And of course, the Civil War was just a boiling point in a history of enslavement that goes back to way before we even had a country.
It occurred to me recently that if the country had finished Reconstruction properly after the Civil War, if those formerly enslaved had been given their forty acres, if those who had rebelled against the United States had been, at the very least, blocked from ever again holding any power, things might be very different these days.
Maybe if Lincoln had lived. Maybe if the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been interpreted as they were intended. Maybe if even many of those who thought slavery was wrong hadn’t been racists at well. Lots of maybes.
The truth is, we didn’t finish the Civil War. The North may have won the battles, but the South won the peace. And the changes we made in the 1950s and 1960s, with court cases and civil rights laws, they weren’t enough to resolve everything.
Because we’ve never looked at our history honestly. We’ve always taught American exceptionalism.
The truth is, American wealth was built on stealing land from the Indigenous population, using the labor of enslaved people to work it, and later on using the labor of immigrants who weren’t allowed to be “real” Americans to expand it further. (See the Bracero program. See the Chinese Exclusion Act.)
White people got the wealth. Some of them got a lot of it. Many of us got a comfortable chunk of it. I know my family on both sides got land either free or cheaply going back to just after the American Revolution. I know my parents ended up with property partly because my father had the GI Bill – which helped White World War II veterans but was not good at helping Black ones – and because their families had property.
I went to a very good state university back when tuition was dirt cheap, and back when Black people had a hell of a time getting admitted to the best state schools even though they were technically allowed in by then. (There were three African Americans in my law school class of 500. Three.)
I can’t ignore this history anymore. Or unknow it.
I read two pieces on this subject this week, pieces that I highly recommend. One, by The Nation legal columnist Elie Mystal, points out that the result of the efforts in right wing legislatures to block teaching true history is that White kids will get a lousy education, while most Black kids will learn the truth outside of school:
Hobbling your own children with ignorance to maintain cultural dominance is a hell of a choice.
The second is a long essay by journalist Michele L. Norris in The Washington Post that compares the way the U.S. has dealt with the evils in our history with the actions Germany has taken to come to grips with the Nazi horrors of World War II. Of our failures in this regard, she says:
The United States does not yet have the stomach to look over its shoulder and stare directly at the evil on which this great country stands. That is why slavery is not well taught in our schools. That is why the battle flag of the army that tried to divide and conquer our country is still manufactured, sold and displayed with defiant pride. That is why any mention of slavery is rendered as the shameful act of a smattering of Southern plantation owners and not a sprawling economic and social framework with tentacles that stamped almost every aspect of American life.
We have to deal with this. We will never be rid of the power the white supremacists continue to hold over our future until we do.