On the Mythologizing of United States History

Spider Martin, “Two Minute Warning,” Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965 (National Archives via Flickr).

On January 18th of this year, the same day the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the outgoing Trump administration released The 1776 Report from the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. The drafters of the report argue that the nation “requires a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history of those principles that are  ‘accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.’”  The commission, a response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, seeks to “Make America Great Again” by restoring “patriotic” education to the classroom. While the report comments on the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s regarding voting rights and other issues, the authors compare the post-Civil Rights era and policies such as affirmative action to John C. Calhoun: “Among the distortions [following the Civil Rights Movement] was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of ‘group rights’ not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers.”

Shortly after Trump’s exit from the White House, the Biden administration rescinded the 1776 Commission and its report. And though this effort is laudable, scholars and activists know this form of anti-intellectual whitewashing does not suddenly disappear. In Arkansas, state representative Mark Lowery proposed HB1231, or The Saving American History Act, which would ban the use of public funds for teaching the 1619 Project and decrease funds to schools and institutions that choose to teach it as part of their curriculum. The bill calls the 1619 Project a “distortion of the United States of America” and “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history which threatens the integrity of the Union.” The bill continues by stating, “The State of Arkansas has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the history of the United States of America in public schools and forming young people into knowledge and patriotic citizens.”

The desire to present “an accurate account” of the past and to educate “patriotic citizens” is nothing new. It is a means of controlling the historical narrative and suppressing progress. Writers and activists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and William Apess, among others, confronted the mythologizing of United States history during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Close to two hundred years before Lowery told reporters that “no historical proof” exists to argue that the United States “was founded on the backs of slaves and on the concept of white supremacy,” Walker, in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), points out that while whites were accepted under “all men are created equal,” he retorted, “we, (coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!! to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus, go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!” These attacks on works such as the 1619 Project are nothing new, as they continue the tradition of mythologizing US history to support and bolster white supremacy.

On January 25, the Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control voted to reject a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund the program “Who Gets to Vote?” Lafayette was the only parish to reject the grant. The program was designed to “engage members of the general public in conversations on the history of voting—and efforts to suppress the vote—in the United States.” However, the library board rejected the grant because the speakers were “extremely far left leaning” and there was no one there to “represent the other side.” Dr. Theodore Foster at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette wrote a discussion guide for one of the program’s books and told The Advocate that the board’s rejection of the grant “speaks to a larger anti-intellectualism that we’ve seen across the country that would seek to restrict access to broaden the public’s literacy about the right to vote.” Part of that education deals with the history of voter suppression in the United States.

I am a native Louisianian, and I am white. I never learned about the racial violence and voter suppression that occurred during and after Reconstruction, nor did I learn about the massacres that continue to influence the present. I did not learn about Colfax, St. Bernard, Opelousas, the Mechanics Institute, or even the Bossier Massacre in my own hometown. I did not learn about these events, even though I grew up and went to college in Louisiana. I did not know about these events until I read Frank Yerby’s The Vixens (1947) and educated myself. The Bossier Massacre occurred in September 1868 when white supremacists killed more than 160 Black men, women, and children in an effort to suppress the vote, which followed the ratifying of the 1868 Louisiana Constitution and preceding the 1868 Presidential Election. The violent suppression worked, and out of close to 2,000 registered Republicans in Bossier Parish, only one vote was cast for the Republican ticket of Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. No marker exists commemorating  those murdered during the Bossier Massacre. In Colfax, the marker mentions the three white men and 150 Black men who died, but concludes by stating, “This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

The 1776 Report, Mark Lowery, the Lafayette Parish Library Board and others want us to move on. They want us to believe that we have moved past the issues that lie at the foundations of the United States. They also want us to be like those who believe racism has ended, as written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “A Testament of Hope,” “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.”

As the social critic Lillian E. Smith states in her November 27, 1948, column in the Chicago Defender, “Too often becoming educated has meant learning things the ‘white way’ which is so often the wrong way.” Had I grown up knowing about David Walker, the Bossier Massacre, and Lillian Smith, and had I grown up and learned about the real account of our nation’s history—lesions, scars, and all, it would not have taken me as long to know that my previous assumptions were inaccurate. It would not have taken me as long to know that I have benefited from my whiteness. It would not have taken me as long to know that I am part and parcel of white supremacy. It would not have taken me so long to know that I’d learned “the white way” and that the way of mythologizing a nation that never truly was, “is so often the wrong way.”

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.

Comments on “On the Mythologizing of United States History

  • A wonderful piece. How stunted our lives have been by suppression of the truth.

    Reply
  • Yes, white supremacy — including its most heinously violent manifestations — has been hidden in plain sight throughout American history, hidden largely through the ways we have been taught that history.

    Reply
  • Thank you for your honesty. Having lived in Louisiana myself for 30+ years before returning to CA, I didn’t know as an educator, either, about many of the incidents mentioned in your article. I’m presently honored to work with some of Louisiana’s unknown “foot soldiers” of the early civil rights movement when the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) was registering voters in the LaFayette region. They live in the Black Belt of Alabama, where my personal “roots” or introduction to Civil Rights and Education came in 1968. With that said, I just learned this past year about the near lynching of James Farmer, CORE’s co-founder and leader of the Freedom Rides. Read Farmer’s Chapter 1, “Freedom When” (1965), and you’ll learn about a near lynching of him and my Alabama friend and James Farmer in the town of Plaquemine, LA. It happened at the time MLK gave his “I had a dream speech” in 1963. The same day, brave Seniors desegregated Baton Rouge High Schools across the Mississippi River. There’s much for us, White folks, to learn, even those of us who think we know something.

    Reply
    • Monty:

      Thank you for this. I’ll look up Farmer’s book. I’d love to hear more about work in Louisiana during that period. I’d also be interested to know about information individuals may have in relation to Lillian Smith.

      Matthew

      Reply

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