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Why We Need to Talk a Lot More about Treason in Defense of Slavery


Every now and then, someone wonders in comments why I obsess about the Civil War and referring to it as Treason in Defense of Slavery, a term it should be noted that originated on the internet at LGM, thanks to a friend of the blog coming up with it. Anyway, this is the reason:

American students are being taught an inadequate and often sanitized version of history when it comes to slavery, according to a new report.

The report, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, looks at how slavery is presented in K-12 classrooms and found that students are often taught a deeply incomplete version of events. Students learn inspirational stories ― about figures like Harriet Tubman and good Samaritans who helped slaves reach freedom in the underground railroad ― before they learn about the horrors of enslavement. When they learn about slavery, it is often presented as an isolated, albeit unfortunate phenomenon, disconnected from white supremacist ideologies that abetted it and the racism that continues as a pervasive part of American life today.

Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed by an independent polling firm for the study identified slavery as the primary reason for the Civil War. Almost half identified tax protests as the main cause.

Teachers also posted disappointing results. About 66 percent of social studies teachers surveyed said they discuss the immorality of slavery with their classes. A little over half of surveyed teachers said they talk about the continued legacy of slavery in today’s society with students. Southern Poverty Law Center said the study surveyed more than 1,700 social studies teachers that subscribe to its teaching tolerance project, as well as others found on commercial lists.

The study also reviewed 15 states’ content standards, and 10 popular U.S. history textbooks. It found that while some states did better than others, they generally demanded only superficial-level teaching on the subject of slavery. Textbooks were similarly problematic.

While more than 90 percent of surveyed teachers said they feel comfortable talking about slavery in their classroom, many teachers revealed a higher level of discomfort in answers to open-ended questions, especially when dealing with young children.

“I focus on the resistance factor more to avoid the children being scared by man’s humanity to man. I don’t want to steal any child’s innocence, though I want to make sure that the children know the real history of their country,” wrote one teacher.

The impact of inadequate teaching about slavery does not end when students leave the classroom. It contributes to how they see the world, the country’s distribution of power, and the institutions around them.

“It’s not simply an event in our history; it’s central to our history,” the report notes.

Fixing the way slavery is taught in schools has a specific urgency at this moment in history, amid a surge in white nationalism, the report says. Understanding and facing the history is an essential first step of alleviating the indelible stain slavery has left on the country.

“If we don’t get the early history of our country right, we are unlikely to be equipped to do the heavy lifting necessary to bridge racial divides now and in the future,” the report says. “It is a moral necessity if we are to move the country forward toward healing slavery’s persistent wounds.”

A moral necessity indeed. We cannot fight racism in the present effectively if we do not teach about racism in the past. And yet so many teachers, especially in K-12, simply don’t want to deal with this because they don’t care, because they don’t want pushback from parents, because the teach in right-wing districts, because they are racist, because slavery is sad. If there’s one thing students take from my relevant courses–whether the first half of the U.S. history survey or my Civil War course–it’s that slavery is the reason for the Civil War. They learn that slavery is the central issue in the American experience and they learn about the true and terrible horrors these people went through to serve white supremacy and to serve as a labor force in a burgeoning capitalist system. Thus, it is also a big issue in my Labor History course as well. Slavery was a labor system and the continued economic marginalization of black communities today is directly related to slavery and white supremacy.

That’s why I do not hesitate in using the image above. The last time I used this, a couple of years ago, I overestimated commenters, who were outraged I would show this, as if I were exploiting the poor man. Well, deal with your history. This man’s name was Gordon. He was a slave in Mississippi who escaped to Union lines during the Civil War in an act of incredible bravery. The picture came from his medical examination before being mustered into the Army. He allowed this image to be used to show the true horrors of slavery. Abolitionists spread this image around the country to help reluctant northerners understand why this war was necessary to end slavery. Given that as a nation we still don’t understand why the Civil War took place, we still need these hard but necessary images. Meanwhile, cops still beat and kill black, brown, and red people without consequences today.

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