“I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement and that we had contributed little to this great nation.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote those words in her introductory essay to The 1619 Project, a special issue of The New York Times Magazine she edited that commemorates the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans who were sold into slavery to the shores of Virginia. Often referred to as America’s original sin, slavery is so pervasive that its residual effects can be found in everything from the stock exchange to our prison system. Slavery was instrumental in the formation of the United States. It’s crucial that we understand its inner workings and aftereffects; only then can we create a moral, economic and social roadmap to achieving our democratic ideals.
Under slavery, our ancestors were robbed of our liberty, of opportunity to gain wealth, an education, due process, and basic dignity — and all those thefts bolstered an American economy; it was built on the back of slave labor.
Slavery may have ended 154 years ago, but its vestiges remain in our criminal justice system, in the systematic devaluation of our property, and in the harsh discipline to which we are disproportionately subjected. Even as black students stand and pledge allegiance to the flag, they know their country considers them second-class citizens. It’s past time all students learn why black and white Americans can expect very different life outcomes, so that they can unlearn the myths of America and the black stereotypes that bolstered those falsehoods.
The disconnect between students’ lived experiences and what they are taught in school is reinforced by the failure of our schools to properly teach about the institution of slavery. In a 2018 study, the anti-racist nonprofit the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed high school seniors and social studies teachers and found that only 8 percent of the students surveyed could identify slavery as a central cause of the Civil War. Less than a quarter could identify how the U.S. Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. And while most teachers (90 percent) claimed they were comfortable teaching about slavery, 58 percent stated their textbooks were inadequate, and 40 percent believed their respective states offered insufficient support to teach our history.
Not teaching slavery adequately has resulted in a massive hole in school curricula — and that didn’t happen by accident. Legislators, history activists and those who want to project a positive view of the U.S. proactively work to keep the subject from the books, principally by manipulating state education standards and authorizing sanitized texts. Some people feel that slavery, when it existed here, was merely a fact of life that should now be seen as water under the bridge, as Coshocton, Ohio, resident Robert Brems wrote in March for the Coshocton Tribune. Why teach history, he argued, to students who are likely uninterested in the whole enterprise? “We should be proud of the fact that we fought a Civil War that devastated half of the country and took hundreds of thousands of lives to halt slavery here,” he continued, saying that we should now focus on the good that has been done rather than the evil. “It has been 150 years since the Civil War, so let us put this part of our history in the rear-view mirror and look forward rather than back and learn from it.”
While American textbooks deliver a slavery-lite version of history, other countries have chosen to confront the ugliness of their past, not a sanitized version of it. For instance, schools in Germany are legally mandated to teach the Holocaust. In the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, patrons are randomly sorted into the white or non-white entrance lines. We, too, can only learn from our history when we know it.
Learning the sordid details of U.S. slavery means recognizing that the current racial wealth gap that has black families seeing one dollar of net wealth for every 10 gained by white families stems from the system of white supremacy that did everything to maintain slavery — even go to war. Brems and others should understand that our current criminal injustice system, one that sees African Americans incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, is a remnant of America’s fight to suppress black civil rights since the end of slavery. We should recognize the connection between slavery and the use of local property taxes to fund school districts, a system that blesses wealthy suburbs with educational largesse, but results in students of color receiving $23 billion less in education funding. These are issues that will touch black students’ lives, and they should know this history so they can begin dismantling modern systems of oppression.
One of the most damaging consequences of this miseducation of our children is the impression that our very democracy was developed by an idealistic group of “founding fathers,” many of whom owned slaves. The reality is that the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in 1865, came out of black people’s struggle for emancipation. Soon after, early civil rights legislation barred housing discrimination. The passage of the 14th Amendment, which ensures that those born in the U.S. are citizens and entitled to equal protection of the law, also occurred as a result of black people’s demand for liberty. After passage of the 15th Amendment, all citizens were guaranteed the right to vote.
While there has been a constant assault on these freedoms — witness the voter suppression in Milwaukee, in the swing state Wisconsin, in the 2016 election — many wrongly assume these freedoms originated with our founding as a country in 1776. Instead, democracy was birthed in the struggle of enslaved Africans in the U.S. and their descendants; any semblance of truth to the words in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” comes from their fight to be free.
The future of our democracy depends upon youth’s understanding of our past. Teaching slavery isn’t about airing dirty laundry. It’s about baring the hidden roots of racism, the source of injustice in our modern-day society.
This story about teaching slavery was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.