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The False Notion of 'History' as Past

Charlottesville-Car-600.jpgWhen I opened my social media feeds that morning, I was struck by the anger on their faces. 

Then, I was struck by the strange modernity of it all. The jeans and hipster haircuts; the nice sunglasses and backyard Tiki torches you might have seen at any summer barbecue these past few months. 

The group of white nationalists marching through the streets dressed in very modern wear was a discordant and jarring picture, yet an all-too-familiar reminder that an image so many are convinced was an antiquated part of our past is a very, very present reminder of our current societal reality and a prescient view of national sentiment in parts of the country.

The next thing that struck me was the size. 

The tired cynic in me—someone I am not normally—wanted to be unsurprised, to shake my head at the modern-day reality that slowly filters through our social and media feeds, and mourn the loss of a world that felt hopeful and safe.

Then, I look at the flowers I have bought for my classroom, the names on my roster, and remember that my job makes that not an option.

I look at the saddened faces and words of my Black friends and colleagues in spaces where this is so far from a distant news story, but their very real and lived experience, and realize that my cynical head-shaking is a privilege it would be reprehensible to indulge in. 

To remove myself from this trauma and disconnect from its ramifications in a profession that calls me to social service is, frankly, weak. Educators, I cannot repeat enough how essential it is we face the current reality of our country and have honest conversations with our students about these issues instead of running away.


As I was reading the news about this topic, I was reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates's piece regarding the upcoming HBO show, Confederate:

...because [the creator] is not so much asking about "the South" winning, so much as he is asking about "the white South" winning.

The symbols point to something Confederate's creators don't seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else's lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate's interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us...

...the creators have said that their hope is to use science fiction to "show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could." And that really is the problem. African Americans do not need science-fiction, or really any fiction, to tell them that that "history is still with us." It's right outside our door. It's in our politics. It's on our networks...

We have been living with the lie for so long. And we cannot fix the lie by asking "What if the white South won?" and waiting for an answer, because the lie is not in the answer, but in the question itself.

The reality for so many Americans is that our understanding of "history" is far from complete. We understand history to be a study of past events, but we also assume "past" means "now non-existent." 

The recent white nationalist march shows us just how untrue that is. We must teach our students that the "history" of these events is far from "past" and "passed." The history our students face now is a very living thing that we must learn about in order to affect change for our future. The longer we live with the myth of racism or its tendrils as bygone ideas, the more we provide the tinder of complacency that allows fires of hatred to fly through our streets.


As many of us prepare to return to our classrooms, we don't just need to buy flowers and make bulletin boards. We need to prepare and read resources (like #CharlottesvilleCurriculum from Melinda Anderson) that help us make space in our classrooms to discuss these events. We need to ensure that we treat our students' stories and the stories happening right now as a very real, living thing that our kids have the ability to change. They deserve that knowledge. They deserve that power.  

Photo 1: People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP

Photo 2: White nationalist groups march with torches through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11. Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via AP

Photo 3: Television lights illuminate a makeshift memorial in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13, during a vigil held at the site where a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally on Aug. 12. Steve Helber/AP

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