When you discover you don’t know anything and what you thought you knew is all wrong

Isn’t this the theme of 2020?

A suffragist.
Source: Independent Australia

Last night, Mr T and I watched The Vote, about women’s suffrage.

All I knew before we started was that 100 years ago, women in the US won the right to vote and blah blah blah.

I did not know women had been arrested.

I did not know that women had been beaten.

I did not know that women had been force fed in jail, tubes shoved down their throats against their will.

I did not know about the sabatoge.

I did not know about the bombs.

I did not know about the hunger strikes.

I did not know about the awful racism in the suffrage movement – that many white women did not want to ally with Black women.


I didn’t know so many things.


I did not know until I was out of college that the US had put US citizens of Japanese ancestry in prison camps during WWII. Had stolen their property. Had treated them horribly.

I did not know how brutally and unfairly Native Americans were treated. And are still treated.

And of course I did not know about all the systemic racism, past and present. I have talked about that before, but I have not talked about how angry I am that I learned none of this in school.

Why wasn’t this part of the history curriculum when I was in school?

Why were we not taught about any of this – racism, lynching, internment camps, sexism, genocide – in school?

Yeah I know that’s a stupid question.

It’s for the same reason that in 7th grade Texas history, we were taught that the Mexicans were bad and the Texans were noble at the Alamo.

We were not taught the part that one of the reasons the Texans were fighting for independence was because Mexico had abolished slavery and the Texans wanted to keep slavery.

Regardless, the Alamo is beautiful now.

Fighting for independence from oppression is one thing.

Fighting to oppress is another.


It would be kind of like if the Confederacy had won the war and students were taught that Robert E Lee was noble and there were high schools named after him and there were statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and military bases were named after Confederate generals and ordinary people named their little boys “Jefferson Dav—

Wait.

The Confederacy lost the war but those things still happened.

WTF?

How did we ever get to the point where we glorify the losers from a war they fought to maintain slavery?

How did we get to the point where there are people in the US who think it’s OK to fly the flag of the Confederacy, a nation that the US defeated in war, a group of traitors who tried to secede from the US to start their own country for the sole purpose of maintaining the morally indefensible practice of enslaving other human beings?

At least they get it right in the Civil War burying grounds.

Wait.

At least they get it right at Shiloh. I just googled and discovered that there are Confederate dead buried at Arlington? And apparently recognized?

At Shiloh, the Confederate dead are in their own section that the US Parks Service does not maintain.

I asked a ranger about it and he answered that yeah, they were enemy soldiers and I realized OF COURSE.

Why should the US pay to maintain the graves of traitors?

Shiloh

How are we ever supposed to understand our history if we are lied to?


Let me get to my point, which is,

We have to stop teaching the myths and teach the truth.

If we don’t know our true history, how are we ever supposed to reach the ideals on which this country was founded?

We need to know that the founders’ intentions really weren’t for everyone.

(That doesn’t mean we are going to stick with their intentions – this is not the place for originalism.)

We need to know that when they said “all men are created equal,” they really meant all white men, not all human beings of every color.

We need to know how people who were not white men of property were treated.

We need to know that we, as a country, have done horrible things.

We need to figure out how to apologize for these things and make it right with the people who have suffered.

We need to figure out how to make it better in the future.


I am angry that I was not taught these things in school, but I am also angry at myself for not learning on my own.

So that’s what I’m doing now. I am reading and watching and trying to understand.

These are the books and DVDs on my shelf now.

  • The Vote
  • Ain’t I a woman : Black women and feminism, bell hooks
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Assata: A Biography, Assata Shakur
  • Caste, Isabel Wilkerson
  • They were her property : white women as slave owners in the American South, Stephanie Jones-Rogers
  • Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
  • John Lewis: Get In The Way
  • Mama Flora’s Famiy, Alex Haley
  • Dying of whiteness : how the politics of racial resentment is killing America’s heartland, Jonathan Metzl

What should I add to this list? What else should I do?

10 thoughts on “When you discover you don’t know anything and what you thought you knew is all wrong

  1. I found the fiction series of Benjamin January historical murder mystery novels by Barbara Hambly to be extraordinarily eye-opening, and the author is scrupulously accurate in her representation of the society of New Orleans (as well as France, Mexico, and other areas) in the 1830s, as far as I can tell. For those of us whose eyes sometimes glaze over when reading nonfiction, these books will be engaging and very instructive.

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  2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Read the book before seeing the movie. Very hard book digest because the extreme racism is still going on!

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    1. Also on the list! Thanks! And as far as hard to digest – I have discovered it’s really hard for me to read non-fiction before I go to bed. I have a hard time falling to sleep with the horrors of racism in my head. (Which I know is such privilege that I have a way of avoiding thinking about it when I want to.)

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  3. Waaaaaay too much here to unpack for comments! But, I agree with every word. As a “daughter of the south” (if I were a proper one, I would have used a capital S.) I learned none of the things you mentioned. Remember that history books are – for the most part – written by the winners, but when you are a loser (Tennessee and Virginia) you elect folks to the school boards who will re-write those books, so that it appears that the “Glorious Revolution” was a wonderful thing – while the poor south struggled to throw off the chains of repression from the north – oppression to force “us” to get rid of our slaves. Bad north; good south. And, then you make sure that your teachers don’t stray from the dogma.

    The longer I live the more I can see how all of the little things helped to breed institutional racism into absolutely everything. It’s a struggle that will continue long after I am dead, but at least we are finally taking some bigger steps and seeing deeper into the problem. While I was proud of the changes that came in the ’60s and ’70s, they took care of some of the big, obvious problems but the smaller ones will be much harder to change. Take almost any topic and look deep enough and you will find that people of color are disadvantaged somehow.

    Sadly, the current national leadership has fanned the flames of racism for the past four years and it will take a long time to put them out. Am not sure they will ever totally die out, tho. It takes people of good will like you; people who are willing to spend their “time off” re-educating themselves to start pushing for all of our communities to make the first changes. Am proud of you for diving in. You go, Girl!

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    1. Thank you. I am so overwhelmed by all the work that needs to be done and I am constantly shocked at the ways racism manifests itself – and that I have never noticed before. It really is a privilege not to see it.

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  4. This, to me, is key. And do you know about the 1619 project? The New York Times project that has been highly controversial on the right, and inspirational on the left? The history of Black people in America, with receipts.

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  5. I haven’t read Caste yet, but The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is hands-down, one of the best books, fiction or nonfiction, on any topic, that I have ever read. It is the story of the Great Migration and it is essential reading. Just before New Year’s I finished Wilmington’s Lie, by David Zucchino, about a violent white supremacist (proudly self-proclaimed white supremacist, I would add) coup in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, that overthrew the democratically elected multiracial government. Timely. Also highly recommend The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer for a history of colonization and US government policy toward Native Americans. The author grew up on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota. One of his central points, which I think is so important, is that the history of native Americans is not *only* of genocide and suffering (though there’s plenty of that) but also of survival and strength.

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