In our American literature two class we began the semester with Mark Twain’s “Puddnhead”, which covers themes of colorism in slavery. During our conversations around this work we examined the Mississippi Black Codes. In our discussion of the Mississippi Black Codes we made broader connections to a systematic problem of racism in America. The black codes were laws passed after the 13th amendment abolished slavery. While the 13th amendment abolished slavery, there is a clause that still permits slavery as a form of capital punishment. From this black codes were born. Laws were passed in order to legally revert black people to slavery. We were also able to see the similarities between the black codes and today’s prison industrial complex. Today prison is still overwhelmingly populated with people of color imprisoned for non-violent offenses.
The conversation around the black codes was very different in my American History class. This class has been an interesting experience for me as an English major. It has given me the opportunity to really pay attention to the ways in which we teach history, and to explore which events and people are deemed important and what facts are left out. In our history discussion of the black codes there was no explanation of these laws as a means to keep black people enslaved. There was no acknowledgment of the racism being written into American policy, and how it economically, and socially impacted the lives of people of color. Manifest Destiny or the American dream, was a complete nightmare to some of us. The black codes were discussed as a part of the southern states desire to return to the Pre-Civil War status quo, which is explained by saying they wanted to return to having an agricultural economic system. This sanitizes their desire to return to torturous slaving owners and makes the focus of returning to the land aspects of the pre-civil war era.
When looking at both of these conversations it is important to note the history is a class that is required for all students prior to graduation. It is a larger class, with a larger variety of students. With that noted, it is understandable that there is a difference in depth even when covering the same subjects. However, what I don’t have an explanation for is how American history is continued to be taught without acknowledging the many ways in which this country has been built on the suffering and stolen labor of people of color. The language we use to discuss history is so important and equally telling. When we discuss President Roosevelt and the Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine the language we use categorizes this event as something other than an imperialistic abuse of power. Under this doctrine the United States was allowed to register as an international police power in Latin America and was therefore allowed to intervene in Caribbean foreign affairs “if necessary.” When we discuss the doctrine in this way it is still viewed as an act of help, when in reality this is not what Latin America needed. After this doctrine, the United States went on the acquire Latin America territory in Cuba, Philippines, Panama, and many more. In many of these instances American presence led to war, and displacement, and corrupt financial agreements that led to the decline in the Latin nations economy’s and pushed them into third world nation status.
There is no progression in clouding the facts of history with pretty language. It is a disservice to what actually happened and does not allow anyone to have the conversations needed about race to actually become a post racial society. Ignoring an issue, does not mean it does not exist. Not discussing the many ways that racism has been written into American society does not make this society any less racist. It is through disjointed and selective education that we continue to have the same conversations. We continue to perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism and it doesn’t force us to grapple with the truth of the American empire. Without looking at the truth America will never be great. Universities, the place of higher learning, have a responsibility to teach students to handle the big questions, and form arguments that change the world. This will never happen if we can’t move away from a white washed unsanitary version of history.