Not that the subject has ever been easy. No, as has often been noted in this space, this country has been positively Herculean in its effort to remain ignorant of African American history. From schools trying to ban it to state laws restricting it, to textbooks telling lies about it, that history is something we have long resisted.
But if the subject was never easy, it has seldom been as fraught — as filled with political heat — as it is now. The New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” in which reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones had the temerity to reframe America’s story through the lens of slavery, seems to have tapped something primal in some of us; something that has moved them to spend two years condemning it; something that has states like Texas, Tennessee and Idaho rushing to pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory (which seemingly all conservatives fear and none can define); something panicky that is emphatically not explained by academic arguments over points of factuality.
For the record, I consider myself pretty well-informed about Black history. But it is not lost on me that most of what I know was learned on my own after my formal education ended, that I somehow managed to graduate an elite private university knowing next to nothing about it.
Even at that, I was more fortunate than some. School only left me uneducated. It left them miseducated, i.e., taught things that were not true. In an inspired feat of enterprise journalism, Michael Harriot of The Root recently dug up the high school history textbooks that would have been used by many of those who grew up to deny the reality of systemic racism or seek to restrict the teaching thereof. The results are enlightening.
For instance, he reports that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham likely read in “The History of South Carolina,” by Mary C. Simms Oliphant how “Most masters treated their slaves kindly. Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one.”
Meantime, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Mississippi native, would have read John K. Bettersworth’s “Mississippi: a History” based on United Daughters of the Confederacy propaganda that held Africans to be so lazy that “it took two to help; one to do nothing.”
Not that this ignorance is solely Southern. No, it’s a national phenomenon.
And when the norm is to be taught little or to be taught lies, we shouldn’t wonder that people see a recreation of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre on HBO’s “Watchmen” and ask why they never knew this happened. Or that a white guy on Twitter demands to know how African Americans can still live circumscribed lives, given that they’ve been “free for 150 years.”
They are ignorant because the powers that be have conspired to protect white people — and prevent Black ones — from knowing too much about a story that embarrasses our national ideal. But what might America be if they didn’t?
We glimpsed an answer to that question as white people poured into the streets to join Black ones last year after George Floyd’s murder put a face to an evil African Americans have long testified to — and white people have long ignored. Suddenly, ignoring became impossible. As the resulting rainbow coalition illustrated, when we are forced to finally see our own humanity reflected in the eyes of the Other, paradigms tend to shift.
And walls to fall.
And change to stir.
And if you’re still wondering what they’re so afraid of, you can stop now.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org