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The Courage to Teach Hard History

The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. Yet, the practices of teaching and learning about this fact remain woefully inadequate. Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries introduces Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, which can help change that.

Editor’s note: This essay serves as the preface for Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery (2019). It is a revision of an essay of the same name originally published in Teaching Hard History: American Slavery (2018).

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
—The Constitution of the United States

America’s founders enumerated their lofty goals for the new nation in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Racial justice, however, was not one of their objectives. Rather, the founders sought to preserve white supremacy by embedding in America’s guiding document protections for slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. In this way, they guaranteed that racial inequality would persist for generations.

Racial justice, however, is the key to achieving the democratic aims spelled out in the Constitution’s Preamble. As is often said, “no one is free until everyone is free.” But to achieve racial justice, we the people have to come to terms with America’s long history of racial injustice. The starting point for this reckoning process is an honest examination of slavery.

Some say that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. The enslavement of Indigenous people allowed the British, the Spanish and other European colonizers to gain a foothold in the Americas. The enslavement of Africans propelled the growth of the English colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery, together with the dispossession of Indigenous people, was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a mighty force in the Americas and beyond. 

Slavery was also our country’s Achilles’ heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage and to prevent the prohibition of slavery in western lands taken from Native nations. White Southerners simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor and Indigenous land. The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. 

And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself? 

Slavery is hard history. It is hard to make sense of the genocide that started it. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it. 

We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present. So we pretend that the most troubling parts of our past simply do not exist. We ignore the fact that slavery prevailed in Massachusetts as well as in Mississippi. Or we rationalize evil, dismissing Thomas Jefferson’s sexual predations with the enslaved girl Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, as a wistful May-December romance, rather than what it was, rape. Indeed, we revel at the thought of Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal,” but ridicule the prospect of Hemings declaring, “Me too.” Or we fabricate history. We conjure up false narratives about secession, reimagining traitors as national heroes and insisting that the cornerstone of the Confederacy was something other than slavery. 

We the people are much more comfortable with the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We would rather suspend reality watching the animated Pocahontas, than trouble our minds with Reel Injun, an eye-opening documentary on Hollywood’s repugnant portrayal of Indigenous people.

Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.” 

But our antipathy for hard history is only partly responsible for this sentimental longing for a fictitious past. It is also propelled by political considerations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white Southerners looking to bolster white supremacy and justify Jim Crow depicted the Confederacy as a defender of democracy and protector of white womanhood. To perpetuate this falsehood, they littered the country with monuments to the Lost Cause. 

Our preference for nostalgia and for a history that never happened is not without consequence. We miseducate students because of it. Although we teach them that slavery happened, we fail to provide the detail or historical context they need to make sense of its origin, evolution, demise and legacy. In some cases, we minimize slavery’s significance so much that we render its impact—on people and on the nation—inconsequential. And in almost every case, we ignore the precursor to African enslavement in what is now the United States. We completely skip over the enslavement of several million Indigenous people throughout the Americas. As a result, students lack a basic knowledge and understanding of the institution of slavery, from early European colonists’ near-total dependence on enslaved Indigenous labor to slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. 

This is profoundly troubling because American slavery is the key to understanding the complexity of our past. How can we fully comprehend the original intent of the Bill of Rights without acknowledging that its author, James Madison, enslaved other people? How can we understand that foundational document without understanding that its author was well versed not only in the writings of Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, but also in Virginia’s slave code? How can we ignore the influence of that code, that “bill of rights denied,” which withheld from African Americans the very same civil liberties Madison sought to safeguard for white people? 

Our discomfort with hard history and our fondness for historical fiction also lead us to make bad public policy. We choose to ignore the fact that when slavery ended, white Southerners carried the mindsets of enslavers with them into the post-emancipation period, creating new exploitative labor arrangements such as sharecropping, new disenfranchisement mechanisms including literacy tests and new discriminatory social systems, namely Jim Crow. It took African Americans more than a century to eliminate these legal barriers to equality, but that has not been enough to erase race-based disparities in every aspect of American life, from education and employment to wealth and well-being. In much the same way, we turn a blind eye toward the federal government’s dismissive and discriminatory treatment of Indigenous people, which continued long after the land grabs of the early 19th century and the forced relocation of Native nations from their ancestral homes as a part of the Trail of Tears. As a result, public policies tend to treat disparities involving African Americans and Indigenous people as simply a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging that they are the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity. 

Understanding American slavery is vital to understanding racial inequality today. The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems. 

The intractable nature of racial inequality is a part of the tragedy that is American slavery. But the saga of slavery is not exclusively a story of despair; hard history is not hopeless history. 

Finding the promise and possibility within hard history requires considering the lives of the enslaved on their own terms. Trapped in an unimaginable hell, enslaved African Americans forged unbreakable bonds with one another. Indeed, no one knew better the meaning and importance of family and community than the enslaved. They fought back too, in the field and in the house, resisting enslavers in ways that ranged from feigned ignorance to flight and armed rebellion. 

In much the same way, we need to consider the lives of Indigenous people, including those who were held in bondage. Indigenous people experienced a horrific genocide, but they survived this holocaust, buoyed by a fierce determination and resistive spirit that reflected longstanding cultural traditions and political practices. 

Indeed, Indigenous people fought back just like enslaved Africans. In 1680, the Pueblo nations revolted against Spanish colonizers, driving the invaders out of their ancestral home in present-day New Mexico and keeping them away for a dozen years. The Yamasee rebelled too, forging an alliance with other Native nations in the British-controlled Carolina colony. In 1715, they killed one in ten Europeans in a bold bid to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression. 

Resistance enabled Native nations to survive European colonization and American territorial expansion. Despite the stubborn insistence that Indigenous people have disappeared, a tale spun to ease our anxiety about crimes against humanity committed in the name of advancing American civilization, Indigenous people remain—profoundly impacted, but with their cultures vibrant and communities strong.

America’s founders were visionaries, but their vision was severely limited. Slavery blinded them, preventing them from seeing everyone as equal. We the people have the opportunity to broaden the founders’ vision, to make racial equality real. But we can no longer avoid the most troubling aspects of our past. We have to have the courage to teach hard history, beginning with slavery. 

Jeffries, who specializes in African-American history, is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. He is also chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board and host of the podcast Teaching Hard History: American Slavery