“I’m interested in the way in which the past affects the present and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great deal more about contemporary life.”—Toni Morrison
The recent violence against Black people and the protests have only highlighted the systemic racism that has existed in our country for centuries. As a White woman who majored in English and history in college, I have been reflecting on my own history of learning in this country. What did I read, what did I learn, what experiences did I have that evolved over time and shaped my understanding about racism? By understanding the past, I believe that we can impact the present and change the future. I’m sharing my reflections and commentary because perhaps you are also facing similar reckonings and wondering how we move forward.
- Grade School
I grew up in Colorado and was privileged to attend a Catholic grade school. We learned about slavery and the Civil War in social studies class. The Civil War was portrayed as a series of bloody battles. The North was good and victorious, and the South lost and was bad. Abraham Lincoln was a hero for freeing the slaves. In social studies, we also vaguely learned about Jim Crow as “separate but equal”. We celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day—he and Rosa Parks were considered “good” for standing up for civil rights in a peaceful way.
In seventh and eighth grades, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—two common novels that were (and often still are) taught in almost every junior high school across the country. I have always believed in the power of novels to be able to create empathy and let us understand the trials and triumphs of those who we would otherwise struggle to understand or just simply ignore. However, upon reflection, the fact that these two books are taught to seventh and eighth graders is completely absurd to me.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the White man, Atticus Finch, is the hero and savior of the story. He’s portrayed as “good” for defending a Black man and fighting against injustice. The novel creates “a comfortable moral position for white people: It lets them disdain white supremacy without feeling implicated in it. It’s a less comfortable position for nonwhite people.” (source)
[Decades after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, it was revealed that the novel had allegedly been taken from a manuscript that author Harper Lee had written called Go Set a Watchman. The same characters of Atticus Finch and Scout appear in this novel, which was published in 2015. The novel focuses on the adult Scout and her discovery that her father, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, is racist. Allegedly, in the 1950s after Harper Lee’s publisher read the original manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, he told her to focus on the part of the story when Scout was young because it would sell better. Therefore, America ended up getting the White savior version of the story in To Kill a Mockingbird without having to confront the hero’s…or their own…racism.]
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has long been debated and many think it should be banned. Upon reflection now, it is very clear that Mark Twain wrote the novel as an ironic satire for adults. Indeed, the first page of the novel says: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the Author.” Yes, the novel is told from the perspective of a child and thus appears accessible to young readers; however, “many teenagers—and even adults—may find it hard to grasp the irony in Twain’s telling, the deliberate saying of one thing when the reverse is intended.” (source). This novel has been whittled down to be a coming of age story taught to 13-year-olds rather than a complex commentary on racism in America treated with deep critical thinking.
In grade school, the scope of my learning about civil rights was limited, and racism was portrayed as a relic where good prevailed over evil during the Civil War and where good people who peacefully protested brought an end to racism during the civil rights movement. More than this, racism was always taught in very geographical terms: It was limited to the southern and northern states, not where I lived in Colorado.
And yet, while there were a handful of Latinx students attending my school, there were zero Black students or teachers.
2. High School
I was privileged to attend a Catholic high school. A handful of Black students attended my school; however, I only shared a few classes with Black students and none of these were AP or honors classes—and our school did not have any Black teachers. Although I didn’t think of it then, I now realize that this could be because there was bias in assigning advanced classes to Black students.
Throughout freshman and sophomore year, my education on the Civil War and the civil rights movement continued similarly to grade school, though I do recall reading my first piece of literature by a Black author when we read Fences in my freshman year English class. It was not until junior year of high school that I finally began expanding my education thanks to my AP U.S. History teacher, Mr. Hamilton. Whereas Reconstruction after the Civil War had only been quickly glossed over in previous classes, we devoted weeks to studying Reconstruction and its ultimate failure. We also discussed lynchings, the KKK, and other scare tactics that white supremacists used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mr. Hamilton was always very clear in his directive that his students must be critical of history because history is always told by the victor.
A surprising moment for me came when I saw a picture of KKK members dressed in their hoods while riding a Ferris wheel (see New York Times article). The sharp contrast of seeing the hooded figures who represented unbelievable cruelty and racism against the backdrop of an amusement park ride was jarring to say the least. But what was perhaps more jarring for me was that this photo was taken in Colorado. For years, I had been taught (and naively believed) that racism was not only in the past, but that it was in the South. Now, I was forced to reckon with the fact that racism was in my home state. [I found out after high school that Stapleton International Airport, which was the main Denver airport for over 65 years until 1995, was named after former Denver Mayor, Benjamin Stapleton, who was a known KKK member (source)].
When we studied the civil rights movement, Mr. Hamilton had us read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, which further opened my eyes to the complexity of racism. I remember my friends and I talked in awe about the letter—commenting on how logical, how beautifully written, sometimes less than peaceful means were necessary to enact change [a fact that those who only see MLK as a non-violent peacemaker still fail to see]. However, I still felt that the problems MLK addressed were in the past. [Of course, racism in the country has not changed and his words from the letter ring very true today:
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.]
Entering AP English during my senior year of high school, I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It captivated me, likely because a novel, as Ellison states in his 1981 prologue, “could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”
When we began discussing the novel in class, I remember my AP English teacher, Mr. Hilbert, saying plainly to us: “You don’t think racism exists today, in this school, in these halls?” He was the first teacher who called out the fact that not only did racism exist today but that it existed at our school, a Catholic school that taught all people were made in the image and likeness of God and every human deserved to be treated with dignity—but that in action promoted little to no racial diversity.
Later that year in AP English, we also read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (a novel I would read two more times in college) and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (which I would read again senior year of college and write about in my final paper). Taking a philosophy class and comparative religion class my senior year of high school also helped me see beyond my myopic views.
I was privileged to attend Cornell University where I majored in English and history. The second semester of my Freshman year, I took a class called Civil War and Reconstruction. Here I understood why Reconstruction ultimately failed. There was no unity in the federal government, which was led by a weak president who was impeached by the House of Representatives but acquitted in the Senate [history unfortunately does repeat itself]. While there was certainly some progress, formal Reconstruction was all but abandoned in the 1870s. The rise of violence and intimidation of Black people was allowed to continue. Even in my final paper for the class, I acknowledged that the failure of Reconstruction allowed racial violence and inequalities to continue for decades, but I still did not overtly mention that racism existed today.
I took a wide range of classes at Cornell, including 20th Century Women Writers of Color, and was exposed to many different viewpoints and beliefs from my classmates and professors. During my senior year, I took an intellectual history class on trauma where I revisited Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and was preoccupied (perhaps even a bit obsessed) with the South and how history can never fully be known. Indeed, the novel is rife with examples of telling and retelling of history, and even making up history where gaps exist.
I was privileged to move to Durham, North Carolina in August 2009. I had lived in the West, then the North. Now it was time to live in the South—the place I associated with evil when I was in grade school. I thought that we had moved past racism. Barack Obama was president. The Civil War was long over, and the South wasn’t going to rise again. Within the first week of being in North Carolina, my now husband and I went to Carrboro. We were walking outside of a coffee shop—my husband was wearing a Cornell t-shirt, and we were talking in our non-Southern accents. A guy walked past us and said: “Damn Yankees. Some job you did reconstructing us.”
At the time, I remember asking my boss at my first job if this was normal and something that was going to happen all of the time. She assured me it wasn’t, and I dismissed it as a one-off experience. When I first arrived in North Carolina, I also remember seeing the Confederate monuments and flags. They have always made me uncomfortable, and I would try to avoid them when out-of-town guests would visit.
Within the first year and a half of living in North Carolina, I decided I wanted to continue to study history and applied to PhD programs. I wanted to study the social history of the postcolonial American South with a specific focus on women’s studies. I was not accepted. So I turned away from history as a profession and instead dedicated my career to marketing and operations. I got married and focused on my career and on expanding my personal and professional networks. I moved to Atlanta for a year and a half and then back to Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ve continued to read diverse novels and history, but my original passion for history more or less fell to the background. I got wrapped up in my life. In the past decade, I never encountered anyone else who said “Damn Yankee”, and I let the Confederate monuments fade into the background. I was privileged and allowed myself to believe that we had made progress as a country in addressing inequality and dismantling racism.
The recent violence against Black people and ongoing protests woke me up to just how much work we as White people must do to address inequality and dismantle racism. I have begun reading more and have felt my passion for history return. Similar to when I was shocked by the photo I discovered back in high school of the KKK members on a Ferris wheel in Colorado, I was shocked to learn about the coup d’état and massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. I highly recommend watching the documentary Wilmington on Fire to learn more, but to summarize: In the late 1890s, Wilmington was a thriving port city where Black and White citizens both owned successful businesses and were part of the city government. However, on November 10, 1898, a group of white supremacists burned down the Black-owned newspaper, forced resignations and established themselves as government officials, violently murdered at least 60 Black citizens [some reports say it was hundreds], and exiled Black citizens. The new government was allowed to stay in power, and the violence was never punished.
Alfred Waddell, who was the coup leader and took over as Wilmington mayor, published a newspaper article a few days after the massacre and coup. The article explained that he and the group of White men stopped a race riot. They were acting in the best interest of the city. They were the “good” guys. [The term “race riot” is one we hear all of the time now, but Waddell created it]. For over 100 years, the truth was not known about Wilmington 1898 because history was told by the victor. In 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission to investigate what really happened. On May 31, 2006, the official report about the coup and massacre was published, and only now is the true history being more widely publicized. I had forgotten about Absalom, Absalom! and its lesson to be critical of history and stories about the past.
I recently reread my final paper for my Civil War and Reconstruction class, which included this sentence: “In the 1890s, violence kept Black men from voting, such as in the Wilmington Race Riot.” Even as a history student, I had the facts wrong. I recognized that the “Wilmington Race Riot” intimidated Black voters, but I didn’t mention anything about the massacre or coup. How could that be? I looked at the date of the paper: I turned in my paper on May 16, 2006. The official report from the commission was published 15 days later. If I had taken the class one year later or even months later, I presumably would have known about the true history rather than the false history of the victor. This, along with all of the other examples I mentioned earlier, are clear examples of how racism and white supremacy are embedded in our education system: through the system ignoring work by Black authors, not correctly or critically teaching history and literature, not striving for racial diversity of students and teachers, or in this instance, through blatant lies that are canonized as historical fact.
As I continued to research Wilmington 1898, I also began thinking more critically about Confederate statues. I’ve always vehemently disagreed with everything the statues stood for and tried to avoid them on tours, and yet, I remember saying not too long ago that the statues were a part of history and taking them down was a complex problem. Now, I realize that the statues were erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s often by the Daughters of the Confederacy or similar groups to glorify a false history and uphold white supremacy:
In the late 1800s, early 1900s, the two key organizations—United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans—set out to rewrite the history of the Civil War. And they’re very, very effective in doing that. They put together what historians refer to as the myth of the Lost Cause.
These monuments are yes, ostensibly, honoring Confederate soldiers, but we want to think about when they were placed, why they were placed. They’re part of, as I said, part of reinforcing white supremacy, justifying Jim Crow on the landscape. So they’re very powerful but maybe in a way that many people driving by them don’t understand.
—Dr. Monica Gisolfi, Associate Professor of History, UNC Wilmington (source)
The statues are a visual representation of a history that must be studied critically but not glorified. By understanding history, we can better understand the present. The true history—not the history of the victor or of the “Lost Cause” or “Race Riots”—dictates that we tear down the statues, rename our schools, rename our military bases. This is just a small step to take in fighting racism, but especially knowing the history and symbolism, this step is vital.
What and how we learn as children and young adults shape what we believe. At each stage of my learning journey, I thought I knew what racism was. But I didn’t, and I am still learning. Learning doesn’t stop after high school or college—it is an ongoing journey. Learning and thinking critically means that we can change our beliefs and perspectives, we can better empathize with others, and most importantly, we can act.
Even though I don’t have my doctorate in history, I am a historian. I realize now that I have a duty to study history and share what I learn with others. I hope this blog post is a start. And perhaps, it has made you, dear reader, reckon with your own history of learning and realize that not only are you allowed to change your mind and your actions in light of uncovered history, it is imperative that you do so.