Unlearning History

I have been inspired by my uncle Kit’s recent posts on his personal encounters with racism in America (“White Flight,” “Stupid Smart Person,” and “Window Tint“) to do some reflecting of my own.

In 7th and 8th grade, I had a teacher named (for purposes of this essay) Mrs. G.

Mrs. G taught social studies, reading, and grammar to all of the 7th and 8th grade students at my small Catholic school in Boise. In some respects, she was one of my favorite teachers of all time. She was deeply engaged with my classmates and me. She challenged us, treated us like adults, and gave us more ownership over our own learning process than any teacher we’d had before. We had heated discussions about anything and everything. She made space for it. She gave us hard, work-intensive research and writing projects, and said “I know you guys can do it.” So we did.

At the end of high school, I honored Mrs. G as one of the three most impactful teachers of my K-12 education. I brought her to the Boise Century Rotary Scholars dinner and we both got medals. I still have the event photographer’s photo of us standing together right as we exited the stage, flashing startled smiles.

* * *

Years later, I started working as a part-time assistant to Mr. G’s husband, I “friended” Mrs. G on Facebook. I was shocked to see that basically all she posted was asshole-ish political content. I started to feel kind of icky about having honored her as an influential teacher. I learned that she was pro-Trump long before he became the Republican nominee. I watched her amplify Fox News’ calls for Hillary to be arrested and jailed during the 2016 election on my Facebook timeline. Day after day, she reposted memes that called Bernie Sanders supporters “ignorant freeloaders” and “young people who don’t know history.”

After that Facebook awakening, I began reflecting more critically on my junior high experiences in Mrs. G’s class. I started remembering the Mrs. G of social studies, who was very different from the Mrs. G of writing, reading, and grammar (or so I thought).

During a unit on the Civil War (a unit that we had in both 7th and 8th grade social studies), Mrs. G repeated to us the following line, again and again: “Remember, the Civil War was not about slavery. It was about _______” she’d look at us, hand up to her ear, and wait for us to answer in unison: “States’ rights!” She told us that the idea that the Civil War was fought over slavery was nothing more than a “common misconception.” My perception of this lesson at the time was that it was more correct and academic to look for causes and ideals that were more central than slavery. Slavery was not a founding principle of the United States, just something that happened on the side for a while.

(On that note, as part of my great unlearning, a phrase that comes from Rachel Cargle, I am deeply grateful for Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project.”)

Mrs. G also told us while teaching Civil War history, “If I were teaching this in Georgia right now, we’d be calling it the ‘War of Northern Aggression.'” (She had been a teacher in Georgia before she came to Idaho.) Given that juxtaposition, Mrs. G’s categorizing the Civil War an idealogical divide over “states’ rights” seemed like a fair middle ground. On a social studies test in Mrs. G’s class, if the question was “What issue was at the heart of the Civil War?” it was not open-ended. It was multiple choice, and you would be wrong to fall for “slavery” if it were listed as an option.

A quick Google search reveals that my class was not alone in learning this version of Civil War history. According to a Quartz article by reporter Jake Flanigan, “An informal survey conducted in 2011 by James W. Loewen, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 55% to 75% of American teachers—’regardless of region or race’—cite states’ rights as the chief reason for Southern secession.”

A Washington Post article corrects this narrative in article titled “Five Myths about Why the South Seceded:”

“Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

Thinking back to middle school social studies, over a decade ago, I now recognize things Mrs. G said in history class as direct quotes from conservative pundits. E.g. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I marvel at how much power she had to shape my classmates’ understanding of the world back when we were young and had two main sources of information: our homes and our school.

Mrs. G taught me history in 2007 and 2008, not long before Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States. During the primary elections, I remember kids in my class saying they were “moving to Canada” if Hillary Clinton were to be nominated and elected. In a red state like Idaho, I was one of only two kids in my class of 30 who was vocally in favor of Obama. But this was not to my credit. Like the rest of my classmates, I was parroting the beliefs of the only other adult with whom I regularly talked about politics, whom I loved and respected more than Mrs. G: my dad.

* * *

Mrs. G was a California native, Spanish speaker, and Latina woman. She was not the person whom one might expect an impassioned “state’s rights” defense from. After I started working for her husband years later, I realized she was probably the less extreme defender of the Confederacy within her house. Mr. G once said to me (after I told him I voted for Obama in 2012, my first vote as a newly enfranchised 18-year-old), “One thing I always like to ask Democrats is this: ‘How much money do you want?'” His intonation was, “Where does it end?” To Mr. G, the government was a system that was there to take from him without end, and he didn’t owe anyone anything.

I did not have a good answer to the “How much?” question. For me, politics has never been about money, it has been about justice. We should do right by people. People are more important than things. This is a lesson I have been re-learning after the killings of more innocent black citizens in recent weeks, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. If we seek to do the right thing, the details will work themselves out. I see now that I should have responded to Mr. G not with an answer (“How about $5 more an hour, to start?”) — but with more questions. Why did he associate “Democrat” with “wants my money?” Why is keeping and maintaining control of “his” money the number one political consideration in his life?

This question followed from one of my only attempted confrontations with my coworkers about politics that summer. I spent many days listening to Mr. G and the other nurses talk about needing to get AR-15’s before it was too late, and saying things like ‘you don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ (criticizing President Obama’s rescue of Bo Berghdal, an Idahoan). I never knew how to engage them. I assumed it was a lost cause. I also interpreted these kinds of comments as mean and angry and I did not want that energy redirected at me.

I used to sit there, restocking medical supplies, thinking “damn, this is hard to listen to.” I’d tell my dad later. He’d refute them and that would make me feel better.

But now, following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement (that I am rejoicing to see spring up more unified and powerful than ever), I am realizing that there is a hierarchy of discomfort. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to listen to people be rude and selfish and quick to anger and violence. It’s counterintuitive to put oneself in the line of fire. But it is a privilege not to automatically be in the line of fire by virtue of a thing as unearned and random as being born white in America. It’s a hell of a lot more uncomfortable to walk around in the world as a black or brown person at whom this kind of vitriol is automatically directed (in our office, the Medicaid patients); to be a person who lives in the line of fire, everyday, year after year, generation after generation.

One of these former coworkers posted on Facebook last week “Here we go again with black lives matter. . . ” several people liked it and someone commented “Haha I love you.” I read this, got super mad about it, thought about messaging her, and then did not do it. Still thinking about it a few days later, I went back to her timeline and found that she had since deleted the post. I had missed my opportunity to speak up. The silver lining was realizing that somebody else probably did.

The resources I’ve been reading and listening to this week are helping me to realize that I do have privilege any time I’m in a white-only space (e.g. the entire state of Idaho), and that I have an obligation to use it. After squeaking out to my boss “I voted for Obama,” the next step should have been to research how to have difficult conversations and come up with an intelligent answer to the “How much money do you want?” question.

My husband, Thom, is practiced and strategic about mixing it up with people he disagrees with. In the past, he has approached AR-15 toting guns-rights marchers and given them hugs as a nonviolent form of protest. He once got in the middle of a fight on the street he lived on in Chicago and started hugging people amidst the flying limbs (he was then hit by a car). Thom credits his strategies to the tradition of nonviolence and social justice Christianity – a tradition that relies on people becoming free from the fear of pain and death. Thom finds this freedom in the example of Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Christian scholars such as Thomas Merton. I am not on his level yet (he says it’s the white guys’ job to become nonviolent first, anyway, not the women and people of color’s), but he inspires me to recognize the power I do have and to give it freely.

* * *

Middle school teachers have a tremendous impact on how we go on to understand the world. At least, they certainly did for me. If not for my dad who immediately told me when I brought home Mrs. G’s “states’ rights” idea, “No, the Civil War was absolutely, one-hundred-percent about slavery; your teacher is wrong,” I might have believed it. (Shoutout to all the amateur Civil War historian dads out there.) I might have taken Mrs. G’s version of history with me into high school, college, and beyond. I wonder what other perceptions of history she taught me that I don’t consciously remember, that have gone uncorrected.

I am waking up to all that I need to learn, and perhaps more importantly, unlearn.

5 thoughts on “Unlearning History

  1. So much to say in response to this, but let me just say the most important parts. I’m totally inspired by your writing. I’m inspired by your courage. And the classmate I alluded to in my own essay today – Billy Bishop – attended a private middle school in Virginia where the Civil War was indeed taught as “the war of Northern Aggression.” Thank you forbwriting and sharing this piece. It’s brave and wise and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this Liz! So interesting to think about the impact our early teachers had on us…I lived in Chapel Hill, NC in 7th grade and remember doing a school perfomance where we sang some song about “Away down South in Dixie…” I’m sure my raised in Massachusetts mom was mortified! What struck me was your relationship with your dad, so nice that you could talk to him about what you were learning and that you valued his imput. You could have rejected it-keep writing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aw, thanks Mary! You know, I think we might have sung the Dixie song in one of our yearly patriotic school musical performances now that you mention it (might have been my younger brother David’s class). Woof! Thanks for being a faithful reader 🙂

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  3. Elizabeth – beautifully written and very thought-provoking for me. It’s not good enough for good people to to be silent, is it? I’ve been re-examining different moments in my life as well. A really powerful one was a work trip with one of my Pearson co-workers over a decade ago when we worked at WSU and UI for the day. As we drove past the “Welcome to Idaho” sign he took a picture and laughed, saying, “first time in Idaho, not the best place for a black guy,” alluding to the Hayden Aryan Nations compound. While I did assure him the compound had been shut down, sold, and apologized for our regional backwardness for letting that group linger for 2 decades, etc., I really missed my window to talk with Jimmy more about his perspective. My discomfort and white guilt over the legacy of that group in this area (they were here for over 2 decades) just paralyzed me. Ignoring a-holes isn’t enough. I think a lot about that and other moments recently as I look for my own voice to add to the protests, to support meaningful change.

    Liked by 1 person

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