American History Can Never Be Unlived
Dr. James Anderson, dean of education at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, and author of Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (UNC Press, 1988), was a guest on the EdTrustEd podcast, along with education historian Adam Laats.
What Dr. Anderson had to say was so relevant to the current discussion of so-called critical race theory that we pulled out the transcript to post here. What follows is a lightly edited version of what he said. To hear the original, go to EdTrusted, Season 1:Episode 7, “Not for the first time, nor the last.”
One of my most precious quotes came from the late Maya Angelou in which she said:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, can never be unlived. But if faced with courage, will never be lived again.”
And that’s the situation we’ve always been in.
It’s been difficult to get people to understand that we can’t undo slavery. We can’t un-live Jim Crow, we can’t un-live the inequality, the lack of freedom that characterized the nation in some ways. But if we face the past with courage, we don’t have to live it again. And if we don’t, we may very well live it again.
When I was a student and in college, I was part of demonstrations, which in part is why the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. I’m from Greene County, Alabama. It was 80% Black in 1860 and is 80% Black today. But when I grew up and my parents grew up, there was not a single Black elected official. I never knew anyone in my family who actually voted. Until 1965. And when we got the Voting Rights Act, I thought, “Wow, what a major, major achievement. We can put this behind us.” Today, we’re right back on the front line, with people marching for the free and fair right to vote.
I think that’s the essence of Maya Angelou’s quote. If you don’t face your past squarely and realize ways in which you have marginalized people and created injustice, you can pretend that it never happened. We’re seeing that today with this pretense that we have a very different kind of history.
Lord knows the people who suffered through it wish we had a very different kind of history. It would mean that we wouldn’t have had 250 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and the pain, suffering, and death. But that’s not the history we have to face. We have to face the history that we lived, not the history that we want to pretend to have.
“We don’t have to make a choice between patriotism and teaching accurate history. It’s not one or the other.”
We have some experience as to what happens when you hide or suppress knowledge among the youth. We saw that in the 1960s, for instance. Most of American history had not been shared and not been told. [Students] finished high school, they got into college, or they went straight into young adulthood. Suddenly, they saw this loss of innocence. And a lot of young people dropped out. A lot of young people felt betrayed. In the songs, in the music, you could hear this sense of: Why was I told the wrong story? Why was I misguided? And I think what we have to remember that this does not go without a cost. If you repress the truth, if you hide things and shield things, eventually, people will find out. At that point, they lose trust in society.
We called it the generation gap in the sixties. But they lost trust, and an adult generation of people had lied to them and had misguided them and had hidden facts and truth from them. We could go through that again. If we think we can keep youth from exploring things that some people do not want them to hear, we’ll pay a price again for that.
What I would want everyone to understand is that we don’t have to make a choice between patriotism and teaching accurate history. It’s not one or the other. I think there’s a lot more patriotism connected to the truth about a society than to the pretense. And we have we have countless examples of this. For example, the African American soldiers that went off to fight in World War II, do you think they were unaware of slavery, unaware of racism? They came from many places in the South, and they couldn’t vote, couldn’t eat at lunch counters, went to segregated schools and hospitals. You think they fought less hard than the other soldiers? You think they were less committed because they knew a different truth? I mean, the notion that you can only develop patriotism by manufacturing, a history or manufacturing, a truth is a very, very false notion.
“People are more patriotic when they understand the society in which they live and are committed to making it a better society.”
People are more patriotic when they understand the society in which they live and are committed to making it a better society. That is a source of patriotism. This fear that somehow if people know about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the ways in which race has shaped our dominant social institution, that somehow, they’d be less patriotic — that is simply a false notion.
That should destroy the notion that you only get patriotism and commitment by lying to people.