How We Teach History to Children

We all know how American history is taught. We were all taught it.

So of course we know. None of this is a surprise or news.

WE KNOW.

Nonetheless, here is an example.

I recently saw a beautiful children’s history book titled, ” History Uncovered: The U.S.A.” by Kristine Carlson Asselin. The concept is fascinating -each section features a map of the continental united states, with a cut out that grows larger as a states are added to the country. Go check out the book on Youtube to see how it works.

Despite the cool concept of the physical layout the book, “History Uncovered: The U.S.A” is a deeply troubled, racist book. I know that lovers of the book will object that it isn’t because it features short biographies of Frederick Douglas and Sacajawea. But stop right there -a biography of an individual does not mean the book is telling the truth about the systems of racism built into the U.S. experience.

The book is problematic in four main ways.
1) It ignores American Indians
2) It ignores slavery, even in its discussion of the Civil War
3) It features maps of the expanding United States, but does not mentioning Manifest Destiny
4) It uses euphemisms for genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow.

The book begins with the 13 British Colonies in the cut out section, and the map of the continent shows those 13 colonies, and the western United States divided into Spanish Territory, French Territory, and “Unclaimed Territories.” The “Unclaimed Territories” features a totem pole picture instead of a European country’s flag. The totem pole is telling, because of course none of the land was unclaimed. American Indians, lived there! Pretending that the land was empty, and that the people who owned the land were Europeans powers or no one at all, clears the way for expansion without an acknowledgement of the wars that accompanied that expansion.

The very first page says, “The English established Plymouth Colony in an abandoned village in what is now Massachusetts.” The book does no even have the courtesy to name the Patuxet people as those who had lived in the village. Indians are entirely erased from the narrative of the book. Europeans arrive in an empty land that no one wants or claims except for them. How very convenient.

Slavery is first mentioned in Frederick Douglas’s short bio, which says that Douglas escaped from slavery. Slavery is not explained or discussed. There is no mention of the economic importance of slavery, or that there were great political tensions surrounding it. When I first read “Hisory Uncovered” I thought the book would perhaps expand the discussion of slavery when it reached the Civil War.

But no. There is no discussion on slavery. In fact, the book does not even tell us that the Civil War was about slavery. Under a section titled, “Secession…and Readmission” it says, “By 1862, eleven states had separated, or seceded from the union, forming their own country.” No explanation is given for this. It’s presented as just happening, as if in a vacuum.

Then, in the section on Reconstruction…
“Reconstruction after the Civil War was difficult. The Country had to figure out how to embrace nearly four million slaves who have been freed. President Andrew Johnson allowed the South to rebuild itself, and new laws were passed and amended as states tried to define a non-slave society. A hundred years passed before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially outlawed Segregation and discrimination on the basis of race.”

Can you see the euphemisms and avoidance in that paragraph? Can you see that Jim Crow laws and oppression are presented as just the natural growing pains of trying to figure out how to embrace Black Americans -as if it were impossible to embrace them as full citizens? Do you see how the author avoids saying that the laws passed during Reconstruction were racist and oppressive. Their invention is presented as, “Oops, we accidentally designed an entirely white supremacist society. How did that even happen?” But we know that the system was actually intentionally and explicitly formed to keep white people in power. The people designing these laws weren’t euphemistic or shy about saying they were white supremacists. It is only we people today who want to pretend that wasn’t the case.

Do you know what I think the justification for this disgusting presentation of history is? That we should protect white children from unpleasant history (it’s white children we’re protecting, obviously, since Indian and Black children will notice that their ancestors are missing from the text)…or perhaps that we should protect white parents from the discomfort of having to have unpleasant conversations. Probably the latter. The examples are so full of white fragility, and so full of white supremacy, that protecting white people from unpleasantness can really be the only explanation for it.

And I guess that’s the whole reason I’m doing this project. We HAVE to talk about these things honestly.

Some resources for learning:
“How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom” -this article points out the ways that our language legitimizes the enslavement of Black people, and post Civil War racism. “History Uncovered: The U.S.A.” certainly has many of the problems this article addresses.

Tribal Nation Maps -see maps of traditional names and locations of Indigenous Americans.

The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to Wrong Nature by William Cronon -while this article is focused on challenging the idea of wilderness as it is used in the environmental movement, it also challenges the notion that the American frontier was ever an empty place without human intervention. An excerpt: The movement to set aside national parks and wilderness areas followed hard on the heels of the final Indian wars, in which the prior human inhabitants of these areas were rounded up and moved onto reservations. The myth of the wilderness as “virgin ” uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the Indians who had once called that land home. Now they were forced to move elsewhere, with the result that tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state, in the new morning of God’s own creation….The removal of Indians to create an “uninhabited wilderness”—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is. To return to my opening argument: there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness. It is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny.


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