Feb 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

States wrestle with how to teach slavery, genocide

llustration of a student's notebook. On one side pages are torn out and on the other they are extended.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

States are considering proposals and plans that would exclude, or bolster, lessons on slavery and Native American removal in public schools.

Why it matters: Conservatives continue to attack The New York Times Magazine's "The 1619 Project" for confronting the U.S. legacy of slavery. Black, Latino, and Native American advocates are using the nation's current racial reckoning to push for more diverse history lessons to combat systemic racism.

The details: GOP lawmakers in Iowa, Arkansas, and Mississippi are pursuing legislation that would punish schools for teaching "The 1619 Project" by withholding funding.

  • Echoing criticism by former President Donald Trump, the lawmakers say the Pultizer Prize-winning project led by Nikole Hannah-Jones "distorts" U.S. history by focusing on slavery instead of the accomplishments of founders and white settlers.
  • "The 1619 Project seeks to tear down America, not lift her up. It seeks to divide, not unify. It aims to distort facts, not merely teach them. It does so as leftist political propaganda masquerading as history," Republican Iowa Rep. Skyler Wheeler told the Des Moines Register.
  • The outgoing Trump administration released a response, the 1776 Project report, which rejects the idea that slavery was central to America’s founding.

The other side: Black and Latino educators in Texas and New Mexico have convinced their states and school districts to expand classes on Black and Mexican American history.

  • The expansion comes after years of resistance and efforts to block out accomplishments of people of color in history textbooks.
  • A federal judge in 2017 stopped Arizona from enforcing a 2010 law that banned a Mexican American studies program in Tucson schools. Conservatives said mariachi lessons and poetry by anti-racist writers in Mexican American studies classes promoted "the overthrow of the U.S. government."

Between the lines: The backlash against "The 1619 Project" comes amid recent ground-breaking research into slavery and how enslaved people built the Capitol and many of the nation's colleges.

  • Scholars like María Esther Hammack and Alice L Baumgartner also are uncovering the history of the forgotten Underground Railroad to Mexico to show how poor Mexican Americans and enslaved African Americans fought slavery.
  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar's book, "Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge," about President George Washington's former enslaved woman, is being made into a movie.
  • "The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire" by Karl Jacoby also has been optioned for the big screen.

What they're saying: "We have to deal with the fog, the mess, the complexity, the subtlety, the humanity of each and every one of us. Education is really about being unsettled and unnerved and being challenged," Harvard professor and Black scholar Cornel West told "Axios on HBO."

  • "There's a clear explanation for why things are the way they are...we can draw a direct line from, say, slavery, to abolition to Black Lives Matter and police brutality," writer Roxane Gay told "Axios on HBO."
  • "We love this country so much. It does not return our love. The United States is a bad boyfriend in my book. And (telling these stories) gives us a way to talk about these things," Suzan-Lori Parks told Axios. She recently wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Hulu film, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

The intrigue: Scholars say integrating diverse history lessons will offer an even more complex picture of racial violence throughout U.S. history.

  • Native American scholars have been critical of romanticized versions of colonial Hispanic history in president-day New Mexico that downplays the violent treatment of Indigenous people by early Spanish settlers.
  • Black scholars have argued that the history of the Trail of Tears must include that the removed members of the Cherokee Nation also owned enslaved Black people.
  • Mexican American historians have charged that some Black scholars have ignored the racial terror Mexican Americans faced through lynching like African Americans leading up to the violent 1919 Red Summer.
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