I can vividly remember my third grade class field trip to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, an institution dedicated to Native American history, to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. When the curator asked about relations between the Native Americans and the English settlers, my hand shot up and I clarified for the class that the “Thanksgiving story we were told was followed by a smallpox epidemic and a lot of stolen land.” A regular laugh at family Thanksgiving dinners about my never-ending outspokenness and desire for accuracy, I am frequently reminded around this time of year about the complexity of historical understanding.
This year, the conversation will be even more poignant. Amid the course of a pandemic and tumultuous election cycle, we also witnessed a historical reckoning. More than 130 Confederate statues were taken down across the nation, widespread support for “Indigenous Peoples' Day” as a counter-celebration to “Columbus Day” took place, and people condemned the celebration of the 4th of July. In my own town, there were dueling protests over the standing Christopher Columbus statue in the heart of downtown. Penn administration also announced in July that the statue of George Whitefield will be removed from the Quad due to his role in perpetuating slaveholding in the United States. So, you may be asking yourself, have we completely changed the way we understand history? The answer is an oversimplistic shift in historical narrative, one that re-imagines the way we see America.
This re-analysis of history is nothing new. Historians like Howard Zinn, with his book A People’s History of the United States, have been seeking to re-imagine the narrative around American history for decades. Zinn’s book written in 1980 sought to combat what he believed to be the "fundamental nationalist glorification of country" in American history. His work has been criticized continuously by both those on the left and right for his oversimplification of historical reality in the name of a convincing anti-American narrative.
Similarly, works like the 1619 project have sought to reframe our comprehension of slavery and the fundamental groundwork on which our country was based. The project has touted claims such as “patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America,” yet has been forced to withdraw a large part of that claim. Those behind the project have faced criticism for ignoring fact-checked information in contrast to claims they published. This is in addition to concerns about a lack of “scholarly support” from Pulitzer-winning historians such as Gordon Wood and James McPherson.
If there has been so much criticism around these works, they aren’t being taught in schools are they? Quite the opposite: many school systems have adopted this new model of American history education and its impacts are reflected in our generation’s relationship with patriotism. Tens of thousands of students, including those in the Buffalo and Chicago public school systems, are currently being educated with the 1619 Project curriculum. The essays on which the curriculum is based argue that American capitalistic practices are a continuation of slavery and that the ideals represented in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were “false when written.”
The harsh reality is, that as much as we want history to be black and white, it simply isn’t. Like all people, historical figures are complex and thus their impact is equally as complex. Thomas Jefferson both wrote the Declaration of Independence and owned slaves, even fathering many children with one of them. Henry Ford, an industrial visionary who revolutionized transportation permanently with the automobile, was notoriously antisemitic. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most revered and vital figure in the Civil Rights Movement, was alleged to have had 40 extramarital affairs during his marriage.
The mars on these mens' characters shouldn’t take away from their positive impacts, but should rather teach us that they aren’t to be idealized. It’s unfair to both the accuracy of historical understanding and the individuals themselves to paint them solely as pinnacles of “liberty,” “innovation,” and “morality.” At the same time, we shouldn't pretend their influence on American society is void because of their (inequitable) downfalls in character.
None of this is to say that I believe we should go back to the exoneration of our parents' generation. Exuberantly nationalist, American exceptionalist education is not good for society. At the same time, whitewashing of American history isn’t “corrected” by taking an entirely negative view of the foundations of our country. We can both feel a sense of pride in our progress and learn to be critical of the country we live in and the government that rules it.
The biblical verse: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” has become a common saying quoted notably by Dr. King. In fact, it is never as true as it is here. Without truth, we fall victim to repeating the mistakes of our past and fail to understand the complexity of those in our own lives. How can we possibly make our country a better place when we believe it is faultless or when we believe everything it stands for is a lie?
In a class discussion on "The Antislavery Debate," which details the adversarial relationship between capitalism and slavery, I was reminded of the unique role that universities play in this dialogue. Unlike at the compulsory educational level, we at Penn have primary resources at our fingertips and the benefit of maturity in our understanding. Where conversations about the harsh realities of the world in conjunction with historical figures’ significance can be confusing and overly graphic for children, in college they are necessary.
We need to make it our responsibility to comprehend the multitude of perspectives in every scenario. We will be the historians teaching our country’s “truth.” If the weight of that feels monumental, it’s because it should. This Thanksgiving Break, recall the holiday’s complicated history. Take time to be grateful for your education and understand the value of what you learn. Be skeptical, but be forgiving. History is complex, and the story is always in the gray.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College first-year student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her email address is email@example.com.
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