Mucking Around In Our history
Dr. Carter G. Woodson: Father Of Afro-American History
On The Texas Text Book Imbroglio
Serious students and professors of history are alarmed by the news from the increasingly wacky state of Texas that the politicians, not scholars, will now decide the content of history text books. This is the sad consequence of demands by misguided parents backed by organized right-wing groups, and the result was graphically illustrated in a letter to the editor in the March 16, edition of the New York Times. Written by Dr. Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, he tells us how a book he co-authored was excluded “allegedly for an offensive passage discussing prostitution on the western frontier.”
Even if that was the real reason it would have been an outrage, but Professor Czitrom was to discover that his book – “Out of Many: A History of the American People” – was sacked for a more ominous reason. “Many conservatives are simply unwilling to accept how much the writing and teaching of American history have changed in the last forty years.” He writes. “They want an American history that ignores or marginalizes African Americans, women, Latinos, immigrants and popular culture. They prefer a pseudo-patriotic history that denies the fundamental conflicts that have shaped our past.”
Professor Czitrom’s comment regarding the last forty years in the historical profession really struck home with me. It was forty years ago that I became a professor at the University of Massachusetts, which was right down the road from Hampshire College. For anyone teaching history on the college level it was an exciting time, because it was an era of revisionist writing in American history. And the relationship between politics and history were crystal clear to those of us who were attacking the prevailing master narrative of American civilization.
According to this narrative American society has always been committed to the proposition that “all men were treated equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.” Dominant themes in the American story – slavery, genocide, sexism, apartheid, imperialism against Latin American nations, the seizure of large slices of Mexican territory by force of arms, suppression of the right to vote, etc. – were omitted or reduced to insignificance. The Black Studies movement spearheaded this flush of revisionism in the historical canon, and the W.E. B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies – the first degree granting department in the country, of which I was a founding member – was in the forefront.
Now that all of this revisionist research and writing has resulted in a more accurate narrative of the building of the nation, one which includes all of the heretofore excluded peoples and events, the hysterics on the right are calling for a rewriting of the text books that dredges up the same old white racist, sexist fictions and call it “balanced and unbiased” history. It was this kind of history teaching that caused Dr. Carter G. Woodson to establish “The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History,” in the second decade of the twentieth century. Dr. Woodson believed the racist mythology that was being taught as history in American schools supplied a defense for the system of white supremacy that prevailed in American society.
Here the distinction between history and propaganda becomes of critical importance. History is the process by which we attempt to understand the present through the objective study of the past. Propaganda aims to manipulate or falsify facts about the past in order to serve objectives in the present. The American Exceptionalist ideologues on the right are interested only in propaganda that can be employed in the service of their reactionary objectives.
These are the types of people who are leading the Texas fight to nullify years of prodigious research by professional historians to try and get the true story of the making of America written. Alas their actions reflect the general Republican contempt for education that has led them to even denigrate Ivy League degrees, and celebrate ignoramuses like Sarah Palin. Hence the present attempt to deny America’s school children the opportunity to know from whence they came, is but one many disservices these demented charlatans have inflicted on America’s students. Yet this is an especially grievous offense, for this knowledge is essential equipment for successfully living in contemporary American society.
Should the Texans get their way with the history books, their folly then becomes a national problem. Since Texas is the largest market for text books they could influence which books will get published. And this will be a disaster that will surely set our country back a half century, or more, in terms of achieving an ethnically diverse, pluralistic society with justice for all.
Harlem New York
March 17, 2010