Let me begin with a dialogue:
My child: Mommy, how could Benjamin Franklin own slaves? Why would he do that? I thought he believed in freedom for everyone. I thought he was a good man.
Me: Well, people are complicated. At first Franklin believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but eventually, through exposure and his own education, he learned that this wasn’t true. He then freed his slaves and became an abolitionist.
My child: So, people are a little good and a little bad sometimes?
Me: Yes, we all are. The trick is rising above the bad and dedicating your life to the good.
Recently, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum for public schools that sugarcoats, erases and falsifies history by kowtowing to conservatives in the state. Their efforts are an attempt to make conservatives look better in history and racial and ethnic minorities as well as liberals look worse. In effect, these curriculum changes empower Whites and further oppress minority children.
The re-writing of the Texas textbooks convinces me that, for some Americans, there is a fear of being critical of our nation’s past. Some Americans think that acknowledging past wrongs makes us weak and their remedy for that presumed weakness is to erase the wrongs from the historical record. But, in reality, owning up to our wrongs and righting them is what makes us strong as a nation—it’s what makes us strong as individuals as well.
Take Ben Franklin, for example. After visiting a school for Black children in 1763, Franklin wrote, “I was on the whole much pleased and, from what I then saw, have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the Black race than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of White children.” He admitted his wrong, and it did not make him weaker, but stronger and more respected.
We need to be honest about our history as a nation and provide a fair depiction of all our people regardless of their racial and ethnic background. The fact is that some White Americans oppressed people of color in our history. Some White Americans enslaved Blacks, wiped out Indian nations, and interned the Japanese. These were wrongs.
But as Americans—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—we have also done many honorable things. We passed the Civil Rights Act, for example, affirming our belief as a nation in equality and safety for all ANYWHERE in our country. All of our actions are part of who we are—just as we are flawed as human beings, we are flawed as a nation. However, if we remember our mistakes and acknowledge them—if we are truthful in our depictions of history—we learn, and hopefully our future will leave a far better history.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).