I learned African-American ‘history’ when I was at school in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980’s and 90’s. As it was taught, Africans just got onto slave ships (although we never talked about how they got on those ships). After a trip across the Atlantic that killed a great many of them, they got off in the new world of America. The slaves had to work hard, but they had at least kind owners in all states except Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Slaves were responsible for helping around the house and in the fields but contributed nothing to the country other than that. Life seemed to have just happened for a while since there was no history about any slave revolts or attempts to be free until suddenly Dred Scott v Sandford had everyone talking about slavery. The Civil War didn’t include any African-American soldiers who weren’t in the movie Glory, may or may not have been fueled by opposition to slavery, and finally all people were viewed as equal under the law (well, except the American-Indians and women).
After Reconstruction (which as I went to school in the South there were times when the teachers would make known their disdain for the North’s attempts to make sure People of Color weren’t discriminated against), there wasn’t any African-American involvement in American history until Brown v. Board of Education. In the Civil Rights Movement, there were two, and only two, leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who, it was taught, went and asked for his rights politely and non-violently until finally the benevolent white Americans decided to give them to him was the main leader. The other one was Malcolm X who was portrayed as someone who hated all white people and wanted them all to die. We did a play on Rosa Parks in the third grade. She was a tired, old maid who just kept saying, “I’m so tired. Please don’t make me stand.” The bus boycott was taught as being able to be sustained because white women drove their maids around so that they could keep cleaning houses. I remember we watched a movie on it and the only people who were interviewed were white women talking about being happy to drive their children’s Mammy to the store or their cook to her house. There was no John Lewis. There was no Bayard Rustin. There was no Selma. There were no bus bombings. There was no church bombing. There were no deaths. The Civil Rights Act was signed and everyone was happy and everyone had rights. That ended the history of African-Americans.
The school that I went to is a private all-girls school that was across the street from a country club, one that at the time still didn’t allow African-Americans or Jews. I’ve always said that I got a good education academically but a bad one socially, and I truly believed that until recently. Lately, the huge gaps in my knowledge about what people have had to overcome and struggle against to be seen as full citizens deserving of all rights have come to my attention. I am trying my best to fill those holes and am focusing on reading books written by People of Color and women this year. The history of America is messy. Rewriting history to eliminate the mess might make some people feel better, like we are the country we profess to be. We won’t magically become the land of promise to all until true, actual, difficult history is taught so that we can learn and grow. I’m starting by making sure my children have a full education from a young age. We can do better, we must do better, or we can keep expecting the same issues to replay over and over.