“Forgetting is an involuntary act. The more you want to leave something behind you, the more it follows you.” I couldn’t help but think of this epigraph attributed to one William Jonah Barkley in Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian when I read of the efforts by Republican lawmakers in Texas to reframe that state’s history lessons by minimizing references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that were – how to put this? – fundamental to that state’s existence. And yet, the more determined these legislators are to excise this country’s roots in slavery and genocide, the more the reality of that history continues to dog their heels.
The Texas bill, similar to ones taken up by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states, would ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times designed to re-center the country’s history by foregrounding the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, as well as by limiting classroom teachers from discussing how racism has influenced the legal system in the state and the rest of the country. Another bill, which cruised through the Texas House, would create a committee to “promote patriotic education” by ignoring how the territory’s 1836 breakaway from Mexico was spearheaded by proponents of slavery’s expansion.
Mexico, after all, had banned slavery in 1829, but newly arrived American “patriots,” nearly 80% of whom were “illegal aliens” who entered after an 1830 law prohibiting their immigration, made sure that slavery would be zealously secured by the new Republic’s Constitution. The General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas prohibited owners, without the legislators’ consent, from freeing those they had enslaved, while barring Congress from making any law that would restrict the slave trade or emancipate enslaved people.
Finally, returning to the present, a third bill proposed by the Texas legislature would block exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from (truthfully) stating that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.
The “Lone Star” state, of course, does not stand alone in this matter. Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law a bill that restricts educators from teaching critical race theory. CRT has been developing since the early 1980s, spurred at the time by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a student at Harvard Law, who wanted to deepen an understanding of how the history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination was embedded in U.S. laws and continued to shape outcomes for Black Americans. It was largely ignored by the non-academic world until the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder when Fox News commentators, who referred to CRT only twice in 2019, suddenly became fixated on the concept. Since June 5, 2020, more than 150 broadcasts on the network saw fit to reference critical race theory.
Last September, Christopher F. Rufo, writer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, to argue that CRT had become “the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and was being “weaponized against the American people.” Senator Joseph McCarthy (“I have here in my hand a list of 205… members of the Communist Party … who are still … shaping policy in the State Department”) is likely smiling from his grave. Rulfo called on Trump to issue an executive order banning it.
Conservative lawmakers feared that white students were being taught to be “ashamed” of past wrongs, such as slavery. And yet shame, were it to arise in these imagined classrooms, would be but the most minimal recompense for the sins of a country, as Frederick Douglass put it in his shattering “Fourth of July” speech of 1852, “built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.”
Nearly a dozen states have introduced similar Republican-backed bills that would direct what students can, or more often, cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing impact of racism in the U.S. today. On May 12, the North Carolina House of Republicans approved a plan to prohibit public schools from teaching seven specific ideas that critically examine how race and racism influence American politics, culture, and law. According to Republican Representative John Torbett, “We owe [our children] an education system that unites and not divides.” Actually, we owe our children an education that educates, not obfuscates.
The Tennessee General Assembly, for its part, not only banned the teaching of critical race theory, but also would withhold funding from any public school that discussed white privilege. Perhaps Tennessee is just maintaining its historical traditions: the state’s Butler Act of 1925 made it illegal to teach human evolution in any state funded school, paving the way for the infamous Scopes Trial.
In New Hampshire, House Bill 544 would prevent K-12 schools and public colleges and universities from teaching certain “divisive concepts,” such as systemic racism or sexism. One of the bills circulating in Oklahoma would make public colleges liable for students or employees who are “harmed” by the institution “promoting, requiring, or allowing any political, social, or unorthodox views as part of the curriculum.” The Arizona House of Representatives has approved a bill that would fine teachers $5,000 for discussing “racist, sexist, politicized or other controversial topics” in schools. On May 20, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a measure that bars faculty from violating students’ First Amendment rights and made it easier to discipline or fire employees for supposed violations. The new law, much like Arizona’s, revealed its heartfelt devotion to the First Amendment by simultaneously restricting the teaching of concepts like systemic racism.
This country’s history of ignoring, deflecting, re-writing, or forcefully repressing “inconvenient truths,” has advanced at warp-speed in the last few months and years. A violent rampage in the halls of Congress has already been turned into “a normal tourist visit” by a Representative who, when the events took place, had himself barricaded the door of the House chamber against those same “tourists.” We bring with us, unfortunately, a long tradition of politicians who stand on the bandstand of liberty in order to suppress historical investigation. Unfortunately, there is also a tradition of university administrators and trustees who are willing, if not eager, to throw a faculty “Jonah” overboard if they thought it would calm the turbulent waters on which they sailed.
I am a historian, so it is not surprising that I would add my voice to those who feel an existential dread about the efforts of Republicans to legislate the whitewashing of U.S. history in the name of free speech, unity, and “racial equality.” Most often, such drastic measures are not necessary given our tendency toward historical amnesia. Americans were by habit “destitute of political memory,” Frederick Douglass once observed. A faculty member at the liberal Bard College, understanding this, was therefore not surprised that her students were uninformed about Henry Kissinger’s widely displayed disregard for human rights, but she was gobsmacked that twelve of her fourteen students had never even heard of him. But when forgetting is not enough to stem the tide, threats, intimidation, and violence have never been far behind. It is all too predictable that professors whose efforts to raise honest, if uncomfortable, historical discussions with their students have become the target of right-wing ire and death threats. Of the 338 faculty members targeted by Campus Reform, an organization designed to “expose liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” 40% reported receiving threats of harm, including physical violence or death, following the publication of stories about them.
But faculty, from our generally privileged positions, are not the ones most threatened by the demand to silence discussion about a flawed past. “I understand,” said Georgina Perez, who serves on the Texas State Board of Education, “that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren’t comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn’t comfortable either.” It is those who have been erased from this history, and who stand to be victimized again and again in the shadow of that erasure, who will pay the price. “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” former Senator, and now former CNN commentator, Rick Santorum proudly proclaimed on May 3. Being required to wear a face mask is no different than being “put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany,” the unhinged Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene asserted. These distortions of the factual past too easily pave the way for their repetition in the future.
The sins present at the creation of this country won’t disappear if hidden behind a wall. The crimes of enslavement, Native American genocide, and anti-immigrant violence do not vanish when state legislators threaten social studies teachers and history professors with penalties should they encourage their students to examine them. History isn’t comfortable, but banishing it doesn’t make it go away. The past will continue to follow us around. We can either accept that reality and make a good-faith effort to engage with our country’s often painful, often hopeful, history, or we can attempt to elude it. But for those who think the latter will work, I give the last word to Joe Louis. “You can run,” he is thought to have said, “but you can’t hide.”