In Order for Americans To Love Our Country in Full, They Must Acknowledge Its History in Full

Teachers must have the freedom to teach the accurate history of our nation, no matter how painful and shameful some of that history might be.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

This article is part of The Root Institute 2023 pre-event coverage.

In fifth grade, my classmates and I were taught that slavery was not that bad. Why? Because our enslaved ancestors were provided with free food, water, and shelter, my teacher said. That was Georgia in the mid-2000s, but fast forward to 2023, and middle school students in Florida will now be taught that free skill development was another upside of slavery.

To make sure we are all on the same page here, let us recall that slavery involved over 12 million Africans being dragged from their homes and thrown onto ships headed to the Americas. The bodies of the nearly 2 million of those men, women, and children who died during the treacherous Middle Passage journey were thrown overboard to feed hungry sharks. Those who reached American shores were rewarded with a lifetime of hard labor, abuse, degradation, and violation.


In her Nobel Prize-winning novel, Beloved—which is now banned in libraries and schools across Florida—Toni Morrison describes slavery as a jungle that spread so horribly that even white folks were “so scared…of the jungle they had made.” This jungle has since evolved into a system of oppression so pervasive that years later, we can spot signs of it in every corner of society: mass incarceration, economic inequality, racial disparities in education, and more.

How then can anyone argue that enslaved people benefited from their bondage? For some, this egregious bastardization of history is driven by a blind sense of so-called patriotism that forbids the acknowledgment of any wrongdoing on the part of the United States. (These are the same folks who proclaim, “America is not a racist country” to shut down uncomfortable conversations regarding structural inequality, privilege, and inevitably, slavery.) Others believe that since slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, it should cease to be a topic of conversation altogether. And then there are those who would rather dilute the horrors of slavery than acknowledge the truth: that white people—not enslaved people—benefited and continue to benefit from the institution of slavery.


While Black people were run into the ground, white people (specifically white men) were running their respective races to advance their educations, further their careers, and build generational wealth. Even after slavery, formerly enslaved people and their descendants received reparations in the forms of convict leasing, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, and other discriminatory practices that have caused existing inequities to grow even deeper.

Today, there are Republican politicians in Florida—as well as states throughout the country—who hope that we will forget about the story of the jungle. But because they know that will not just happen, they are doing everything in their power to erase it from the minds of young leaders by erasing it from lesson plans and curricula. However, as Vice President Harris declared in Jacksonville in July: we will not have it. We know that revising—or even worse, denying—the history of slavery is erroneous and dangerous. When that occurs, our nation’s future leaders are hoodwinked and hamstrung in their ability to fix what is broken in this country. For that reason, we continue to speak out against these efforts and demand that students have the freedom to learn—and teachers have the freedom to teach—the full, accurate history of our nation, no matter how painful and shameful some of that history might be. In so doing, we allow our fellow citizens to grapple with that history and channel their emotions toward progress.


At this very moment, we are in a national reckoning; one in which leaders on both sides of the aisle are denouncing this recent attempt to so grossly misrepresent history. It is up to us to do more than just denounce and condemn because we have an opportunity to pitch an affirmative vision for the future we want for America: a future in which all students fully know their country so that they can love their country in full. And with that knowledge and love of country, take steps to move our nation forward like true patriots.

Gevin Reynolds is a former speechwriter to Vice President Kamala Harris. He is a first-year law student at Yale.