History consists of facts. But history books and classes are selective—all facts cannot be taught, and all facts are not known. Biases of teachers and authors who do the selecting inform and distort our understanding of history. This is especially true when it comes to the Civil War/War between the States. Unfortunately, these biases have contributed to discord in our nation.
In this blog series, I will stick to my personal observations as much as possible, and I have first-hand experience of the widely divergent ways in which the Civil War is taught. I call it the Civil War because I am from the North, and from the Land of Lincoln at that. My fellow Georgians call it the War between the States or the War of Northern Aggression.
Where I grew up, in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was a hero. We learned about how his family lived in a lean-to in a harsh winter in Indiana, how he read books using a fire for light, and how he loved his mother, Nancy Hanks. And we understood that, as president, he ended slavery. As we got older, we learned that some northern states had slaves and about the Dred Scott decision. What we did not learn was to hate the South. I had ancestors from Minnesota who fought for the Union and possibly some who were held in the. Andersonville Prison. I think we just felt that what the South did was in an earlier time in history that we were glad was past.
Northerners seemed to have some respect for General Robert E. Lee, and I accepted that. We little girls who loved horses knew all about his horse, Traveller. An article I read recently about Lee, penned due to the current problems around celebrating any confederate icons, suggests that after the war he facilitated peace talks between the North and South, so we might not have been wrong entirely.
My mother told me, humorously, that southerners in Arkansas told her she was sweet, even if she was a damned Yankee. Little did I know that I someday would become a damned Yankee—or some thought so, even though I am a midwesterner!
Some people in the small Georgia city I moved to at age 23 were kind and courteous. But some stared at me and seemed hostile—largely because I came to work at a historically black college, I’m sure. Everybody knows everything about everybody in a small southern community.
I may already have heard, but I soon had evidence that the white townspeople considered the Civil War (the War between the States, to them) to be the war of Northern Aggression. The concept of States’ Rights (that I actually believe in) turned out to be what they believed the war to be about. They stated directly that the war was not over slavery but about northern economic aggression and State’s Rights. The northern towns I grew up in were very patriotic, especially on July 4. Georgians barely celebrated the Fourth until the Bicentennial except with family picnics and concerts held in the black communities. Black people were more likely to celebrate Juneteenth. I learned this as I did research for an article in the Macon newspaper while I was serving as a faculty intern.
Other factors leading to southern bad feelings toward northerners include the political situation during the period of Reconstruction and the terrible economic conditions later caused, among other things, by erosion and the boll weevil that decimated the crops so that the South was less prosperous than the North.
We may think all of these things were long ago and not relevant to prejudice existing today. But the southern Democrats turned Republican—and now many are supporters of President Trump--for reasons not always related to small government or the Constitution. And only two years ago, I learned that one homeowner in town is still bitter because his family lost land three or more generations ago during Reconstruction.
All in all, northerners don’t realize what the South has been through—and that even Lincoln and his fellow Republicans allowed slavery to exist until there was no hope of maintaining the union. And southerners still are being taught a version of history that makes them appear to be the victims—brave and rebellious victims. Unfortunately, black people, Hispanics, and Asians sometimes experience the resentment of those who lost the war.
How history should be taught still is a hot potato, and states are requiring opposite things in textbooks as we speak. Meanwhile, a large number of students in most states cannot even pass a U.S. citizenship test.
It would be good if we could sort out ideas versus motives and cultural failings. Yes, colonists cheated native Americans, had slaves, and didn’t give women rights. Yet they handed down a constitution that has set forth the means of correcting such wrongs. Like northerners and southerners today, the first citizens in the United States were influenced by existing conditions in their culture all at the same time as they put forth the philosophy of individual rights. It would be good if their valuable contributions could be taught alongside the lessons of how not to treat our fellow human beings—and how not to allow power, money, and the media (who seek both power and money while we can only hope they are following journalistic standards) to warp our feelings for each other.
Prejudice since the 50s--what I know
[Blog 1 in a series on the topic of prejudice and its effect on communities and the nation. Purpose: To seek a way forward, both socially and politically.]
Current state of affairs. The continued existence of emotionally-charged prejudice in the United States is an impediment to education, and such prejudice is kept alive by self-interested media and politicians. Yet, the history, economics and philosophies we need to know and understand to make wise decisions in our communities and in the voting booth must be taught.
Some Americans resent, distrust or hate others based on race, ethnicity, non-traditional gender identity, advanced education or their political affiliations. Also, some Americans set race, ethnicity, gender, non-traditional gender identity, or political affiliations above the value of individual rights and freedom, and they resent, distrust or hate others based on perceived low education level, religious affiliations or their political affiliations. I have friends in both of these camps as well as other liberal and conservative friends who use moderation to express themselves and are less apt to express hatred.
Highlighting and exploitation of prejudice today. The tendency to dislike, or even hate, the “other” is not new, but mass media and social media exploit these divisions today. Political parties, valuing power over effective solutions, also are exploiting these divisions to the point where resentment and distrust overshadow consideration of economic and philosophical principles.
Racial prejudice in the past. Clearly, many of our problems in the United States began with slavery, followed by segregation. These institutions existed mainly in the South. Racial prejudice did exist in the Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin communities I lived in or where my relatives lived by the time of the 1950s. However, I, like many, especially children, was nearly oblivious to it. Here is a retrospective, based on my personal experiences:
Attitudes of Midwesterners in the 1950s. In late 1945 or early 1946, my mother took me as a baby to visit my dad who had not yet been discharged from the Army and was stationed in Arkansas. She enjoyed telling the story of my calling a black man at the bus station “Daddy” and his replying, “I ain’t your daddy, honey!” She would have used the word negro, which was normal at the time. I didn’t detect prejudice, but only amusement, when she told the story. My Swedish grandmother in Minneapolis seemed to be more concerned about the Irish than the negroes. She particularly disliked Irish tenors. Like most Midwesterners, except those in large cities, I rarely saw black people.
What I was taught about race. I was taught that we should use the word “tiger” in “Eeny-meeny-miney-mo” because the other word was not nice. I was taught that it is not nice to stare, and particularly when we drove through southside Chicago on the way to Ohio. In fact, we kids were told to roll our windows up. A black child, Albert, joined my fourth grade in Wheaton, Illinois. I came home and asked my mother how I was supposed to behave toward him, and she told me to be nice to him the same way I was to other people. He didn’t stay long, so I don’t remember him well. But in what seems like a contradiction to what she tried to teach me, my mother was against using colors such as chartreuse, hot pink, cerise because she said they are negro colors. I didn’t argue with her, but I wondered what that really implied.
Limited exposure of white students in small towns or cities to African Americans. I did observe black students at Wheaton Community High School, but they were two, three or four years ahead of me, so I didn’t get to know them. They were smart and they were popular, especially because the guys were great football, basketball and track stars. I learned later that their families had come to Wheaton before the Civil War. It didn’t occur to me until I experienced black culture first hand to wonder where they went to get haircuts, where their homes were, or other such things. They were just there, they were cool, and everybody knew their names.
There were no black kids at Oshkosh High where I finished school in 1963. We saw black people fishing on the bridges in town, and an upper-middle-class black family attended my Lutheran Church for a while after they came to Oshkosh and bought a brewery. Later, black families migrated from Chicago to Wheaton and from Milwaukee to Oshkosh, but this was after my public-school years. I do remember one of my Oshkosh High School girl friends saying that she just loved Johnny Mathis.
I saw no black students at Oshkosh State College in 1963-65. Even during 1965-1968 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I saw very few African Americans. In fact, I mainly remember seeing interracial gay male couples on State Street.
A friend of mine who grew up in a very small town in western Oklahoma (and who, like me, has taught at an historically black college in Georgia for decades) says that she had no real contact with black people as a child, either. She and her siblings were taught to respect other people and to believe in equality, and they learned in school that segregation is wrong. Only later did she discover to her dismay that many people in her community had prejudice against blacks.
What we believed and were taught in school. In the 1950s, we learned in school and saw on television that civil rights were being granted to African Americans, and segregated schools were going to be integrated, beginning with first grade. We were taught that these events were very positive and important. We weren’t against the South—we thought one southern girl’s accent was charming, and when I was in elementary school, we liked to play games including Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveller. But we also loved Roy Rogers’ Trigger and Gene Autry’s Champion. I developed a love of jazz starting in fifth grade based on exposure to Gershwin and Louis Armstrong.
Later in the Sixties. In around 1966, I visited with my aunt and my older cousin, a trucker, in a small town in Ohio near Toledo. I was very disturbed when in reaction to new developments in trucking, my cousin said at the dinner table, “I’ll work with ‘em and I’ll eat with ‘em, but I won’t sleep with ‘em!” His experiences and things he was taught, whatever they were, had led to racial or perhaps homophobic prejudice. On the other hand, a different aunt and uncle who lived in a two-story house in Toledo found their neighborhood changing from entirely white to entirely black except for them. Yet, they ended their lives in their home, and I heard no negative race-based stories from them or about their experience living there.
I can’t really be proud of my “oblivious” childhood, with my being largely unaware of racial prejudice but also being unaware of real black people and their lives. Still, it does seem like a better start than being taught to look down on or hate people based on race.
In the South. Growing up in the South obviously was different. I asked a white friend of mine, an author who grew up in a very small town in Georgia, about her experiences, and she said, “As a writer, I'd love to write something set in the 40s and 50s, but can't because I know my happy memories were set against a backdrop of mean-spirited exploitation and really vicious inequities.”
Some of my black students from small towns in Georgia encountered few whites in their daily lives while others, or at least their parents, had to work for and with whites. From some of my black students I learned about views southern blacks held about white people (and perhaps northern blacks held them as well). I learned we smile too much (I hope I don’t but I’m not sure), there is doubt about how good a job we do at bathing, and most of us don’t seem to be able to dance (I’m guilty on this one). To this day, most in the black community do not trust local white political leaders.
As for the attitude of whites: After we finally got black law enforcement officers in our town around 1976, black officers showed up at a small traffic accident in front of a store I patronized. The perfectly nice white lady at the cash register looked upset. She cried, “Who’s in charge of those sheriffs?”
Effects of past efforts towards tolerance. School desegregation was intended to give equal education to all children, throughout the nation, not just in the South, but also to integrate society. The Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved things forward. Yet, as we see in 2019, integrating society and reducing prejudice have proved to be an enormous challenge. This must be because old habits, superstitions and prejudices die slowly. But it also is because people with power and in power resist change or, worse, use prejudice to get and keep power.
I believe increased knowledge of history, economics and philosophies will enable more of us to make wise decisions in our communities and in the voting booth. It will be hard to teach children and harder to teach adults as long as overcharged prejudice is prevalent--and, with it, incorrect theories and views about economics--and even encouraged by media and politicians. The only way forward is through education, but despite valuable books being published recently such as Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg and Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal by Ben Sasse, it is hard to see how education can be improved and pervasive enough to make a difference unless some other factor in the equation changes.
In this series, I will explore, from my perspective, whether knowledge of the past or of other factors can lead us to a solution. Future topics will include:
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.