I have been quite aware of the white washing history trend of history textbooks. I have been aware of the fact that there is always a separate chapter on African-Americans and our history that has always been marvelously unconnected to the rest of the text, as if we were not there for the Revolution, the Constitution, WWI.
But it never hit me that this was wrong until I got a history textbook that doesn’t separate African-Americans out in a different chapter. My U.S. Foreign Policy class uses a textbook called, “America in the World.” The book follows America’s foreign policy throughout history in primary documents– speeches of Presidents, memos from Secretaries of State, letters from political activists. What is so brilliant about this text is that it manages not to skim over what was happening with race relations in America at the same time. The fact is- race was always important, it was always weighing on their minds, but it has been in the present moment that our history books scrap out those one or two sentences from speeches or letters that remind us that race was there.
I’m not saying what was said about race was always pretty- what I’m saying is that this text using primary documents allows me to really see what was happening.
Let me give you some examples:
Chapter Five starts with a text from a Marcus Garvey speech criticizing America’s need to “uphold order” in developing nations, but it was nothing but European imperialism under a different name. He says this at a 1921 speech: “The world cannot disarm so long as one section of humanity oppresses the other section….Japan is not going to disarm until Asia controls Asia. What right have you in the other man’s home?” (America and the World, p. 108)
In Chapter Six, Mohandas Gandhi criticizes the hypocritical nature of America’s reason regarding entering World War II: “I venture to think that the Allied declaration that the allies are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual and for democracy sounds hollow, so long as India and, for that matter, Africa are exploited by Great Britain and America has the Negro problems in their own home.” (America and the World, p. 142)
Chapter Twelves offers a Congressional report from 1974 that states, “Respect for human rights is fundamental to our own national tradition. It is expressed unequivocally in our Constitution.” (American and the World, p. 300) yet rewind only twenty years prior and walk down any American street and you would see that this line is grossly untrue.
It is enlightening to flip my way through America’s history in primary documents, seeing who liked to skim over African-Americans, who fought for them, and who pointed out America’s hypocrisy. But I also recognize that this ability I have is a gift, because, sadly, I don’t imagine many others outside of our race will attempt to read documents like these from our point of view. I have an opportunity to see the true America- and for that I am grateful.