The Wayback Machine
It was late winter, 1966.
I entered my American History classroom and sat at my assigned desk. It was one of four that formed a square which allowed each student to face two others and sit next to a third…a convenient way to facilitate group discussions.
Subdued conversations ceased as the teacher, Mrs. I.G., put down her Wall Street Journal, took off her reading glasses, and walked to the middle of the classroom. Perusing the W.S.J. was a ritual for Mrs. G., as was wearing fashionable, well-tailored clothing. That day she wore a Chanel-inspired jacket and skirt. Maybe it was a genuine Coco Chanel ensemble. After all, from time to time she’d referred to Mr. G.’s successful business law practice as well as her own skills in the investment world. It was likely she could afford to buy designer outfits.
“If you read last night’s homework assignment, you can tell us the topic of our new unit,” Mrs. G. said. She pointed at a student seated at the far end of the room.
“The American Civil War?”
“Are you asking or telling us?” Mrs. G. returned to her desk to retrieve her eyeglasses.
Impatient with the student’s timidity, Mrs. G. spun around and shifted her stylishly shod feet from first gear to third. Stopping just short of my desk, she stared down at me and unleashed a four-word weapon.
“Your ancestors were slaves!”
I felt a surge of warm blood rush to my cheeks. Silently, I prayed for the floor beneath my desk to yawn open and swallow me as I glanced at the bowed heads of two students seated directly across from me. I swallowed something akin to bile, probably my shame.
Just as rapidly as she’d approached my desk, Mrs. G. strode toward the only other student of color in the classroom.
“And your ancestors were slaves also!”
I tried to dispatch a mental first aid telegraph to my classmate, but I didn’t think she received it. Her steely stare and tightly set jaw told me she’d been better prepared for the teacher’s accusation than I’d been. And it was an accusation.
“What was the cause of the Civil War?” Mrs. G.’s piercing voice could have shattered a diamond.
“Slavery. The North wanted to end it.” Some brave soul spoke up.
“No!” Mrs. G. said. “The cause was the economy!”
What? Everything I’d heard about the Union soldiers fighting to free the slaves, i.e., people who looked like me, was fabricated? You mean Abraham Lincoln didn’t give a damn about my peoples’ servitude? It was the almighty dollar that caused the war?
It was 1966. We were bright but polite students. We were also in that odd place, somewhere between being “Negro” and/or “Black.”
We knew slavery was part of our heritage, but we were afraid of what that meant for us now. We knew so few truths and we failed to understand how wrong it was to feel guilty about our ancestors’ decades of subjugation. We surrendered to our ignorance, accepted the myths presented in our textbooks, and never allowed ourselves to ask why and how slavery had existed in “the land of the free.”
Clearly there was so much I/we needed to learn. There were so many facts that needed to be taught.
Dear readers, you know where I’m heading…
Right now, the state legislatures of Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Idaho have passed bills that forbid teachers to present historically factual information gleaned from the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and its’ corollary, the forty-year-old “Critical Race Theory.” Similar legislation has been introduced in dozens of other states. Legislators are throwing their proposals to parents as if the plans were fresh meat and the parents were starved grizzly bears awakening from their winter hibernation.
I suppose human nature compels people to protect their physical, economic, and intellectual turf from the incursion of different fact-based information. It’s all about holding on angrily to one’s position and power. Although anger gets more attention than fear, in the United States nothing awakens fear quite as successfully as do issues of race.
Some of the “traditionally powerful” are afraid of the uglier side of our nation’s true history. They fear laying bare the inhumane savagery of slavery. They are weaponizing the word “woke” and replacing Boards of Education in an effort to deny the truth and examine the social, psychological, and economic tolls still paid by those of us who are the ancestors of slaves. They are pumping the air full of panic.
I’m starting to panic because Critical Race Theory, as it’s falsely portrayed by the right-wing media, is the issue for which the trump cabal has been waiting. Subverted from its goal to analyze the generations-old effects of slavery and deter those effects from controlling lives in the present, CRT is as galvanizing to the right-wingers as was Barack Obama’s elections. Remember the formation of the Tea Party? This new movement is more like a quad espresso from Starbucks.
It’s a conundrum. How vehemently should I be in favor of high school level cross-curricula presentations that explore the relationship between slavery and its legacy of systemic racism? Do I want to give right-wing white supremacists the ammunition they need to recover the suburban votes they lost last November and restore Republican congressional domination in 2022? Do I want to deny all students the opportunity to learn an accurate version of history? A version which, by the way, includes the truth about African rulers who sold their own people to European slavers, and Blacks in this country who owned slaves? Do I want to withhold information that’s connected to another generation’s present and future standards of life?
I do know if I could relive those moments in my 1966 American History class, I would respond differently to Mrs. G.’s thundering declaration that labeled me a third great-grand-daughter of slaves.
Educated and no longer ashamed of my heritage, I would say, “You’re correct, Mrs. G. My ancestors were slaves. I want us all to learn how that [slavery] happened and why it has affected so many aspects of our lives. So, please put away your Wall Street Journal and teach us the fact-based information.”
© Renée Bess 2021
Renée Bess writes fiction and truthful blog posts. For more information about her books, the latest of which is Between a Rock and a Soft Place, Flashpoint Publications, visit her website. www.reneebess.com