My Turn: History is complicated; look Into It
January 14, 2010
You sure do hear a lot of people using history to back up their perspectives these days. Whether it is the talking heads in the media or just citizen’s debating, everyone seems to have some historical example to make their point.
When I hear these, the first thing I usually think is, and#8220;Well that is a bit simplistic.and#8221; And often times my response is, and#8220;Well that is just plain wrong.and#8221;
How would I know? I am a history teacher. Erroneous statements about history worry me because history is the foundation for current philosophies, policies, and the nation’s intellect as a whole. Our nation is divided for sure, but there should still be some basic history subjects that we all know about and agree upon.
Take slavery for example. Recently, this subject has come up twice as an illustration of what I’m trying to say here. The first time was among college students, specifically students who were studying to be high school social studies teachers. It sounded something like this: and#8220;Slavery wasn’t so bad; a lot of slaves were treated as part of the family and#8212; not all slaves were abusedand#8221;.
I was appalled as I addressed them with an, and#8220;Are you kidding me?and#8221; OK, I knew that they were referring to house slaves who helped bring up the children, cook, clean, and were around the family all the time.
But what a backwards way to express the history of house slaves! A slave is a slave is a slave. It doesn’t matter how nice you are to them, as they are not free to leave and they have to work for you for nothing. As the owner, you have the option of selling them or just their children to someone else, never to be seen again.
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The second incident happened about a week later when I was helping an advanced 12th grade government class prepare for a local competition. One of the students responded to a question about slavery by bringing up Thomas Jefferson.
It sounded something like this: and#8220;Jefferson was a slave owner, indeed, but he was nice to his slaves, he even fell in love with one of themand#8221;. Hum … what do we know about Jefferson and this and#8220;love affairand#8221;?
Well, we have DNA tests that confirm Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. Sally was born from a black mother and a white father. In 19th century America, one drop of black blood meant you were black, regardless of a white father. Plus, slave status was passed through the mother so a black slave mother meant a black slave daughter.
These racial laws were established and regulated by state governments, governments that Jefferson founded. More interesting is the tale of Sally’s half sister. Sally’s white father, John Wayles, had a daughter with a white woman. It was this half sister, named Martha Wayles who married Thomas Jefferson. Do we know whom Jefferson loved the most? Do we even know if Jefferson was a romantic? Does it matter anyway?
This complicated history is way more interesting and thought provoking than the broad, rainbow-induced statements of my students but it also can make you feel uneasy.
We need to be OK with feeling unsettled about our history, for it forces us to look into it further and not just except what we hear in passing. Anytime you explore the depths of history you uncover the complexities of it, the messy details, the interesting particulars. To hear upper level students reduce slavery to niceties and love affairs was like listening to nails scrape down a chalkboard.
Oh, and please don’t say, and#8220;What’s a chalkboard?and#8221;
Whitney Foehl is a Truckee resident.