What’s Past Is (Not) Prologue: Racism & History’s Problem with Progress.
I am not what one would call a history buff.
As a rule, I relegate my love of history to the pre-teen portion of my life, to Saturdays spent devouring Scott O’Dell novels or riding on the Orphan Train. In later years, I enjoyed Emma Donoghue but balked at history, sans fiction.
Prior to college, history gained more ground with me through fiction than through schooling. And now, in my late twenties, I’ve finally begun to wonder why. I’ve begun to interrogate the way I learned history, to question why the subject that has become so dear to me felt so dry for so long. The first criticism is, of course, the tired (but true) point of “too many dates and not enough action.” Too much regurgitation, not enough critical thought. But I take issue with something beyond that, something deeper. I take issue with one of the most dominant narratives in history education: the guiding understanding of why history matters.
Call it a crap curriculum or a selective memory, but I am pretty sure that every history class I took prior to college taught the same three periods: the Revolutionary War, American slavery, and the Holocaust. (The Oregon Trail was added briefly, at the height of the computer game’s popularity.) In two of these three cases, the “so what” factor was continually summed up in that old Abe Lincoln standby: “those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it.” Now, telling a bunch of grade-schoolers that their studies can prevent racism, genocide, and enslavement may seem like a powerful motivator. Does anyone want Anne Frank and Abe Lincoln shaking their blessed heads at us, while we set this train of atrocities back in motion? I didn’t think so. So study up, kids.
But there’s a major issue with this “doomed to repeat it” rhetoric that I think most of my college history professors understood, although none referenced the quote, specifically. It’s an issue I doubt is beyond the grasp of grade-school minds, although they are rarely entrusted with it. In fact, the main problem with this quote is the main reason history finally became interesting to me. I realized something shocking: Far from being repeatable, history never ended in the first place.
The skipping through decades (and at times centuries) to focus on “units” like slavery and civil rights instills a fragmented narrative. It creates a story of America where the Emancipation Proclamation leads cleanly into the Civil Rights Movement, Abe hands his top hat to Martin, Harriet tags in Rosa, and the country moves on its merry way. Toward progress, of course. Because racism—like every other wrongdoing of the past—is something we are so totally over.
It infuriated me in college to hear the “post-racism” narrative repeated by classmates—of all races—with astounding frequency. But I also saw how easily they could come to that conclusion. My peers and I learned a very specific definition of racism growing up, a definition that involved slave quarters and separate water fountains. We learned racism as part of the prologue in America’s narrative of progress: Once upon a time, kids, we had these problems. Then heroes came along and fixed those problems. Choose one to write a biography on and work hard because we don’t want to make these mistakes again. See? Diversity. Problems unequivocally solved.
Having grown up in the generation when “multiculturalism” and “diversity” became the buzzwords of early childhood education, when Black History Month was a given, and every classroom (in my 99% White, racist-as-hell town) was adorned with the poster of multi-racial children holding hands around the globe, I secretly believe that when asked about racism, the majority of my peers unconsciously think drinking fountains, overseers, and backs of buses. And when, running down that checklist in our minds, we realize that indeed all is well now, we simply stop calculating.
History got interesting for me when I realized what a lie this is. When I learned about the century between Abe and Martin, when I first heard the phrase 40 acres and a mule. History got interesting the day a friend of mine referred to the Fugitive Slave Act as an invitation to racial profiling. It got interesting the first time someone asked if slavery “ended” or simply transformed into a criminal “justice” system that incarcerates Black and Brown people at a rate seven times that of White citizens.
In some ways, you can’t blame us for our education. For having grown up in an America that fell into the easiest trap of history: the sense that it has all been building to this moment, here, when all wrongs have been righted and we’re nationally, finally, on the Right Track. But I find myself appropriating that old For the Bible Tells Me So gem: there’s nothing wrong with a fifth-grade understanding of history, provided you’re in the fifth grade. And perhaps, in this case, our fifth-graders could handle going deeper than we trust them to go. And perhaps, they deserve the insight into their own experiences of race and racism that would come with that education.
We’ll need a new quote for the syllabi, of course, but I think we can manage that, too. Personally, I vote for that old Utah Phillips line “The past didn’t go anywhere.”
Or, for the more concise among us, simply– history continues.