What does it mean to learn from history?

George Floyd’s murder hit me hard on a number of levels. On a personal level, Minneapolis is my favorite US city, and one where I have both friends and family. On a philosophical one, I am a humanist numb from the colossal disregard for human life in that moment and all that came before. On a political one, the instinct from some circles, including the police and some elected officials, to crush protestors with an iron fist smacks of a turn toward totalitarianism.

My training and background as a historian informs my response on each level. Although my work does not focus on this hemisphere, let alone the past century, I read and teach widely and am always struck both by the historical roots of the systemic problems that surround race-constructs in the United States. This means, among others, the racist roots of policing, the artificial, racist origins of segregated neighborhoods through policies such as redlining, and how the construct of who gets to be white evolved to conscript white-skinned immigrants into the cause of institutional white supremacy.

The first two are obvious, the third is more insidious and leads, in my opinion, to internal contradictions such as many Jews benefitting from White Supremacy and some seeking to reinforce it even while torch-lit marchers chant “Jews will not replace us.”

History is not static, consisting of statues or events frozen in amber with a clear, unambiguous meaning. For one thing, the meaning of both statues and events are contingent, and claims to the contrary are meant to delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. But my assertion that history is not static goes beyond the simple fact that history lives and gets revivified in memory. Rather, history consists of dynamic processes and developments. Named people and events offer concrete case studies that illuminate developments and dates give context, but neither are an end in their own right, whatever the caricatures of history class might suggest.

No class, and certainly no survey class, has time to exhaustively cover every civil rights incident, so teachers choose a few incidents to highlight as representative—the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Summer, Selma, the March on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe having students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi—before moving on to the next topic.

In my US History courses I also spend time looking at propaganda with students that includes a Soviet cartoon from 1930 with a black man lynched from the Statue of Liberty and a white Jesus figure depicted with what looks like a swastika in his halo, talk about the Tulsa massacre of 1921, and explore COINTELPRO, the FBI program that targeted, among others, Martin Luther King Jr.

We also spend time dealing with the history of immigration to the US, charting how immigrant food became mainstream and reading documents like a NY Times op-ed from Senator David A. Reed defending the implementation of the Johnson-Reed Act that cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the grounds that they needed to defend America for their grandchildren from those non-white people thought to be flooding into the country. Today, of course, the descendants of many of those immigrants are counted as White Americans and have been co-opted into defending that privilege.

Teaching history comes down to political choices, no matter how it is taught. Historical examples drained of their vitality and set on a pedestal can be deployed to defend all sorts of malicious programs, which is one of the insidious problems behind the trope that we need to learn from history so as to not make the mistakes of the past. Even supposedly a-political history is laden with baggage that generally supports comfort and the status quo at the expense of justice.

Take a seemingly innocuous example: The Plessy v. Ferguson supreme court case in 1896 legalized Jim Crow segregation laws and is generally considered a bad decision, but if your story then charts a trajectory of progress that includes Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Brown v Board of Education desegregating schools in 1954, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as accomplished through the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and co., never mind that King advocated confrontation and law-breaking, before drifting away until the election of an African-American president, then you offer a falsely triumphalist version of US history without dabbling in explicitly White Supremacist ideas.

Now, the example above is deliberately over-simplified and every version of this course I have seen at least punctuates the narrative with struggle (Rosa Parks), White opposition (Bull Connor; George Wallace), and murder (Emmett Till; King).

At the same time, there often seems to be reassuring triumphalism baked into how we sometimes talk about US history, as though the United States is obviously the greatest country on earth, so we should look to its earliest history for why that has always been true. The rest of its history, warts and all, simply explains how the US became even better, all the while leaving most of these terms undefined, thereby allowing for the doublethink assertion that the US now is the best country to ever exist and that it was better sometime in the past. This is a facile interpretation, but the US is hardly the only state afflicted by its circular logic. Johanna Hanink offers a really interesting discussion of how a similar process took hold in Ancient Athens in her book The Classical Debt.

I am not particularly interested in debating US greatness. In principle I’m onboard, in execution not so much. However, these triumphal versions of American history belie the processes at work such that every decade or two people can be once again shocked by a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Marquette Frye and Emmett Till, only to reach the same conclusions about what should be done before reverting to comfortable complacency and bigotry that puts the responsibility for civil rights on African Americans or blames them for conditions created by a history of racist institutions.

My courses are far from perfect and evolve as I develop as a historian, teacher, and person. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, which I hope will help me develop better vocabulary to express these different types of racism for if or when I am back in the classroom.

I hope this moment results in meaningful change, and certainly there seems like a groundswell of momentum, but when I watch institutions long steeped in both overt and covert racism resist accountability for their actions, corporations offer empty platitudes so that people will continue to buy their baubles often made and transported in exploitative conditions, and people continue to defend White Supremacy under various guises, I see the deep historical roots.

Learning history to avoid making the mistakes of the past is nice and all, but it is an empty sentiment. Hitler is bad and we shouldn’t try that experiment again, but too narrow a focus on Hitler and the death camps obscures centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, the complicity of the German population, how many Americans were outright sympathetic to the Nazi Regime, and how Adolf Hitler actively praised and emulated the Jim Crow regime . I think history is endlessly interesting and teaches skills like how to analyze sources, but, more immediately, learning to think historically means learning to think intersectionally in order to see how these interwoven threads create a larger tapestry.

Lessons from history are not the result of simple equations like [Adolf Hitler] + [wrote Mein Kampf] + [Nazi Party] = [don’t vote for him]. Rather, they force us to look at where and how White Supremacy has entrenched itself because the failure to grapple with and resolve those underlying processes creates the cycle where history appears to be repeating itself.

ΔΔΔ

I am not as well read on Civil Rights as many people, but here are a few books that have particularly informed how I think about these issues. Nancy Isenberg is the only white author on this list, but her thesis about the perpetually unresolved issue of poor and marginalized whites has had tragic consequences for minorities, so I think it is worth considering here as well.

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