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I celebrate American history

Trump wants to say that radicals have distorted US history, poisoning the narrative of American glory. He is wrong, writes James Zogby

James Zogby , Tuesday 29 Sep 2020
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On 17 September, US President Donald Trump spoke on American history at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

In his remarks, the president denounced what he called the “left-wing indoctrination” of American school children whom he said are being taught to hate America, its history and traditions. At one point, he charged that, “the left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods and lies... teaching our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” His targets included teaching the role that slavery, the removal of America’s indigenous peoples and imperial conquest played in building the American nation.

To correct what he referred to as this “toxic propaganda” that is causing Americans to “lose confidence in who we are, where we come from and what we believe”, the president announced a number of measures to address this “crisis”. He created a federal commission to promote “the truth about our great history”. He banned federal agencies from adopting programmes to address racial inequities. And he ordered the creation of a National Garden of American Heroes to honour a hand-picked collection of “the greatest Americans who ever lived”.

This effort to “Make American History Great Again” is not only wrong, it is also damaging to our country.

I’m 74 years old and so presumably I learned American history using the textbooks that predated the indoctrination created by the left-wing rabble. My social studies textbook, which I now jokingly refer to as “From Stone Age Man to Ike (President Eisenhower)”, was a pure Eurocentric narrative.

The story it taught began with Stone Age man in caves in Southern Europe. It skipped to ancient Greece and then the Roman Empire, followed by the Holy Roman Empire.

What came next were the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, the emergence of the nation states in Europe, the birth of America, the industrial revolution and then the two world wars.

The rest of the world received only scant mention. China was ​only discussed when Marco Polo “discovered” that exotic civilisation. ​ For reasons that were never clear, this was accompanied by a picture of the Great Wall. The only two mentions of Arabs and Islam were during the Crusades and a very strange picture of an Arab on a camel in front of the Pyramids in a short section on ​Bedouin life.

This was weirdly contrasted with a slightly longer section on the Lapps – who were presented as ​Bedouin with reindeer living on the frozen tundra of northern Scandinavia.

The textbook began American history with Columbus’s discovery of the “New World”​ and moved to the experience in the colonies, Westward expansion, the Civil War, the growth of American industry, “welcoming” of waves of immigrants to Ellis Island, the Spanish American War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and concluded with the Cold War and victorious America.​

Native Americans were only discussed at the mythic first Thanksgiving and then during ​westward expansion, during which they were forcibly removed from their homes in our relentless drive to settle and cultivate the continent.

They were portrayed as an obstacle to our God-given quest. Slavery was noted, of course, but only as a secondary cause of the Civil War – the primary reason being “states’ rights”.

And slaves were depicted as living pleasant lives on plantations and not as victims of an abhorrent institution.

That was indoctrination.

What we didn’t learn was what “new historians” have spent the past 60 years helping us to better understand.

They filled in the picture making us aware of the contributions of China to the West, that predated Marco Polo.

They taught us about the brutality of the Crusades; the role that Islamic civilisation played in providing the intellectual stimulus that led to the Renaissance; the great African cultures that were plundered by imperial conquest and the role that colonisation and imperial greed played in destroying the natural development of countries in Asia and Africa and the role that competition among imperial powers played in igniting World War I.

What we didn’t learn about American history could fill books, and filled they were, by the very historians the president has condemned. ​From these so-called “warped” accounts, we learn about the acts of genocide committed against America’s indigenous peoples; the evils of slavery and how, even after its abolition, its legacy and repressive government policies continued the oppression of Blacks in America; and how, despite not wanting to see itself in the same light as European imperial powers, America’s greed and conquest led us to conquer the southwest and use military power to take control of resources in Central America, the Caribbean and even the Pacific, to serve the interests of US companies. We also learn how, despite “welcoming” waves new immigrants, this was almost always accompanied by discrimination and a generation or more of poverty and hardship.

Finally, we learn about those heroes who, through the ages, struggled with courage and determination to challenge these injustices and who fought to secure an expansion of rights for immigrants, labourers, Blacks, Hispanics and women.

And we learn that in academia there ​are courageous voices who confront the crude whitewashed version of American history, challenging us to fill in the picture with truth.

They are not the indoctrinators; they ​are the true historians.

History, like injustice, didn’t right itself; it took hard work, persistence and sacrifice.

 Back in the 1960s, I remember watching an interview with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier in which they were asked whether they favoured teaching Black History.

Both agreed that while it wasn’t an end in itself, it was a necessary step in the direction of developing a fully integrated telling of American history. The role of Black History is to help correct the record, by telling the stories that ha​ve, for too long, been ignored and excluded from our American narrative.

My first visit to the National Archives, where Trump delivered his speech, was early in the Clinton administration.

I had been invited to hear him speak on the need to both protect and amend affirmative action programmes. At the event, I sat next to a friend who headed one of our country’s most respected civil rights organisations.

As I glanced around the room at the magnificent murals celebrating the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, I couldn’t help but note that all were white men, and many were slaveholders. I recalled that when the document one of these majestic murals celebrated had been put to a vote in Virginia, it was approved by a margin of 86 to 76. No women, Blacks or Native Americans voted. They weren’t considered people with rights or a voice. So I leaned over and whispered to my friend that I wondered what these men would be thinking today of the two of us in a room filled with non-white men and women talking about righting the wrongs of our history of systemic racism.

It’s true that we have based our never​-ending struggle to expand our rights in America on these same founding documents. But to fully appreciate how far we’ve come, the hurdles we had to overcome and the unfinished business that still remains, we need to see our history as it really was, and our problems a​s they really are.

 Whitewashing the past will not make us better.

There is a glory in the America’s story — not in the romanticised version the president is promoting, but in our people’s never-ending efforts to confront and correct the injustices and horrors of our past and move forward.

In 1984, I delivered a nominating speech for Jesse Jackson when he was running for president of the United States. I began my remarks with, “I am the son of an illegal immigrant and I have the honour of nominating for president the great​ grandson of a slave. Nowhere else but in America.” What I celebrated then and still celebrate today is the history of struggle that made moments like that possible. 

 

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

 

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