Since Barack Obama made history as the nation’s first black president in 2008, efforts to whitewash all the other history that the nation had to overcome to get to that moment have been leaking into lesson plans.
Two years after his election, Texas made massive changes to its textbook curriculum that, among other things, watered down the heinousness of slavery. One proposal, which was defeated at the last minute, would have replaced the term “slave trade” with “Atlantic triangular trade.”
In 2011, Tennessee Tea Party groups demanded legislation that would revise history textbooks so that “no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
In other words, if owning slaves makes George Washington look bad, leave it out—and stick with the story about him crossing the Delaware River.
Yet what worries me the most about these efforts is that, according to U.S. census figures, black and other minority students make up 43 percent of students who attend public schools, and that number is projected to grow.
That worries me—because what it means is that these revisionists are apparently relying on black students and their parents to be either too consumed with their own survival issues or too indifferent to their own history to keep people from getting away with playing down black suffering in order to play up white icons.
It’s a worry that I come by honestly.
In Jacksonville, Fla., where I live, the Duval County School Board recently voted to begin the process to consider whether to remove the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a local high school. Although the outcome is unlikely to be decided before the end of the year, such a move is decades overdue.
The local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy chose that name in 1959—three years after Southern governors signed a manifesto vowing to fight school integration.
Forrest was a slave trader and Confederate general who is believed to have directed his troops in slaughtering scores of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee—as they were surrendering.
He was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet this high school—one of two in the nation named after Forrest (the other is in Chapel Hill, Tenn.), and one in which more than half the students are now black and likely would have been horsewhipped by Forrest if they’d ever thought about trying to learn anything—continues to bear his name.
That shouldn’t be.
The last attempt to change the name, in 2008, failed when the school board voted against it. And the most disturbing argument for keeping it didn’t come from bigots and whitewashers who, among other things, cited Forrest’s ultimate decision to leave the Klan and his kind words toward black people at a ceremony years after the Civil War—when he was a dying old man trying to get into heaven.
The most disturbing argument came from a few board members and others who, in essence, said that the students weren’t complaining about the name because they had too many other problems associated with poverty and dysfunction—and if they didn’t care about the name, why should anyone else?
It's also an argument that some continue to make—and that bothers me.
It bothers me because this issue isn’t just reflective of the mindset of people who want to keep the name of a Klansman on a predominantly black high school because he was a great general who was good to the slaves he traded and ultimately came around to loving black folks.
It’s also reflective of the mindset of Tea Party types in states like Texas and Tennessee, where, like the Forrest apologists in Jacksonville, they are trying to sanitize the role that racism and oppression played in the history of this country by reworking textbooks and other research—and hoping that black and other minority public school students won’t notice or care.
Maybe this time in Jacksonville, the name change will really happen. But the people pushing for the change could use more help from the students and their parents.
Because when it’s all said and done, black students everywhere need to care about their history and be willing to speak out about it so that racists can’t use their neediness as an excuse to keep a place named after someone who, for most of his life, worked to keep them that way. Or to spin history-textbook lessons to say that slavery wasn’t all that bad.
One way to battle this is for us to ensure that our children understand their history enough not to allow others to recast it or whitewash it.
And then dupe them into believing that it doesn’t matter.