Yesterday, Feministing alerted us to the lovely news that the Tennessee Tea Party wants to delete every reference to slavery from the state’s textbooks. You heard it right, folks. In the TTP’s own words:
“No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.
[Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address] “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.”
Huh. Not only is the TTP perfectly up front about wanting to keep Tennessee’s students in the dark about one of the most central institutions in the first half of American institution—an enormous injustice and disgrace and the cause of the most significant event in American history, the Civil War—their reasons for doing so are very much out in the open as well: they don’t want to portray the Founding Fathers in a negative light. No matter that many of the founders actually did own slaves and that American administrations since the early years of independence expropriated and massacred Native Americans. At bottom, this is a bald-faced attempt to paint history in a way that conforms to Tea Party ideology and erase our awareness of some pretty horrible things that did happen.
While I hope these ideas don’t get much play, this sadly is only the most extreme example of a trend in which far-right groups and politicians have attempted to whitewash or blot out the history of American slavery. As ThinkProgress reminds us, in 2010 some Texas conservatives wanted to switch mentions of slavery in state textbooks to discussions of the “Atlantic triangular trade.” And Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has a habit of making historically dubious claims about slavery, including that African Americans were often better off growing up in slave families than in contemporary black families.
What all of this highlights is that history is not only an objective study of the past but also a political tool, a contested domain that different political actors use to advance their own arguments or agendas. To some extent this is unavoidable; any account of history must be told from some perspective– emphasizing certain historical actors and events over others. But the Tennessee Tea Party’s push to blot out slavery from the American historical record (or Tennessee textbooks’ version of it, anyway) is an enormous abuse of the political nature of history. The TTP is attempting to use blatant falsehoods and groundless interpretations of the past to advance an understanding of the Founding Fathers that serves their purposes—in other words, it’s a move to paint the founders as morally flawless white males. Because so much of Tea Party philosophy is “originalism” allegedly grounded in the intentions of the founders, portraying the founders as blameless grants their own positions significant moral authority. But the attempts to whitewash slavery and distort history show that “originalism” often isn’t about remaining true to the original ideas and actions of early Americans. Originalism often functions as a way to justify contemporary race-, class-, and gender-based hierarchies, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to rewrite history in a way that supports the “naturalness” or “obviousness” of these hierarchies. These TTP demands are nothing more than an ethically questionable ideological dodge.
Just as we must not forget even such ignominious aspects of our national past, we shouldn’t turn our back from those suffering from slavery and racism today. Do what you can to learn about and speak out against school segregation and human trafficking, both of which are alive and well today.
By: Aaron Bekemeyer
(Photo by Vectorportal under a Creative Commons license)