A college professor – my advisor, a professor of anthropology – recently posted an interesting piece on the teaching of the US’s Civil War history.
I ‘majored’ in anthropology at uni; I also ‘majored’ in history. When it came to my history studies, I was particularly interested in the history of the South, specifically the history of the South ‘post-war’ – ‘post-war’ for Southerners, you see, has a very specific meaning.
I am a Southerner. There is no escaping this. Though I left the South long ago, every time I open my mouth, there it is, the South.
As a child, as a teenager, as a university student, I learned a lot about the ‘history of the South’. I learned a lot about ‘being Southern’.
As an adult, I’ve learned that ‘history’ is a very, very subjective term.
Honestly, I don’t remember what we were taught in elementary school about slavery. We were ‘taught’, I’m sure, that slavery was wrong. We were certainly ‘taught’ that racism is wrong. We were, I believe, ‘taught’ that slavery was an ugly blight on American history. In high school, as I recall, the same. In fact, I only recall hearing the ‘states rights’ theory after I reach university.
I also know, though, that throughout my childhood and my teenage years, I was ‘taught’, in school and out, that Northerners hated us. That Northerners would do anything they could to hold us down. That the goal of the North was to punish the South.
When I went to university, I was ‘taught’ that ‘in the North’ ‘they’ learned not about ‘The Civil War’ or the ‘War Between the States’, but about the ‘War of the Southern Rebellion’. Proof that the goal of the North was to punish the South.
What I also learned is that what you are taught becomes what you believe and how you perceive the world.
Seems obvious, right?
Well, it is and it isn’t.
People – I am one of them – get very agitated about language. British people take great pride in the fact that ‘we’ are not so controlled by ‘PC’ language as the ‘Americans’.
I understand that. I do.
But, I also know that even a slight or subtle bias in teaching has a lasting effect.
In the South of the 1970s, we were taught a lot about equality. Integration was taken as a given. Yet. . . . Yet, in the town I grew up in, there was the ‘black’ section. There were ‘black’ churches. Not ‘African American’. ‘Black’. Having ‘black’ friends was okay, but having them over to your house, well. . . . When I look back, I know segregation was alive and well; and while ‘equality’ might have been in the textbooks, socio-economic equality was not even a consideration.
I also know that when I arrived at uni – a ‘niche college’ in Florida with a student population of (very) rich (very) white kids from New England and the North Atlantic states – one of the first questions I was asked – again, and again, and a-fucking-gain was “do you own slaves”?
So, I went to class and was taught about Southern racism while I joined the Black Student Union and recoiled in disgust as my dorm-mates from New York and Connecticut continually used the ‘n’ word in terms of people they would not associate with.
People often say ‘the war’ is not over.
Those people are right.
Northerners and Southerners alike have continued to allow generations’ old hatred and bitterness to permeate our language. To perpetuate an ugliness that we should unite in extinguishing.
Race relations lie at the heart of this, but the ugliness extends to inequalities of all sorts.
Southerners have to accept and have to teach our children that whole swathes of our history are hideously and horribly wrong and ugly and we must atone for that. Mourn the dead if you will – death in any unnecessary conflict is a tragedy – but let go of these absurd notions that plantations were romantic or that slaves were treated well (it is wholly impossible to enslave and treat well; wholly impossible) or that taking down a flag that represents oppression and division and hate is some sort of personal slight. People judge you because you are wrong.
And Northerners must accept that there are those in the South who have moved on. There are those in the South who would love to move on. Let these people proceed. Support them. Encourage them. Work with them. Do not teach your children that ‘all’ Southerners are racist. Do not teach your children that a Southern accent is inferior or that it represents anything other than being from a particular geographic region of the United States. Do not teach your children that inequality is a problem specific to the South.
Education and personal development only begin with schooling. Most of what I’ve learned, and, I daresay, all of who I am, have happened ‘post school’. But I am lucky. I have lived in enough places to know that ‘history’ is different based on your location. I’ve developed a nose for propaganda. I’ve been able to unpick some of what I was ‘taught’.
We need to offer our children more than this. Don’t force them to unpick. Change the language if it helps, but change the message too. Face forward. Give all our children a future. Don’t make them waste time unpicking.