In Our Age of Intolerance It’s Essential We Reimagine History and Civics
Paul Ortiz is director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is author of the newly-published An African American and Latinx History of the United States(Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). He is co-author of the forthcoming book, Behind the Veil: African Americans in the Age of Segregation, 1895-1965 with William H. Chafe.
President Donald J. Trump has threatened a government shutdown unless the United States builds an impregnable barrier between the United States and Mexico. Trump insisted, “We need the wall… If we don’t get border security, we’ll have no choice. We’ll close down the country because we need border security.” An ill-informed citizenry is vulnerable to the kind of racial demagoguery that Donald Trump has practiced in his rise to the apex of American politics. Trump began his political career in earnest by directing white anger against the black and Latino teenagers falsely accused of rape in the Central Park Five case in the 1980s. Today, he routinely denigrates Mexico and Haiti in order to garner votes from a base of supporters who possess little or no understanding of the extraordinary roles that people from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa have played in the development of the republic.
Combine this ignorance and fear of the outside world with the fact that the US has the largest military budget on the planet. Add to this the fact that nearly 10 percent of the American public believes that neo-Nazi viewpoints are acceptable, and one realizes that we are living in a time of crisis. The study of history as a corrective to intolerance and narrow nationalism has never been more important. One of the major roadblocks in the building of the kind of productive social relations which form the bedrock of a democratic society, is the stunning lack of knowledge the American public has regarding the histories of the African American and Latina/o diasporas in the United States from 1776 to the present.
Granted, since the popularity of the new social history along with curriculum resources for teachers such as Teaching For Change, the American Social History Project, and other innovative, social educational initiatives we’ve made great strides in the teaching of history. However, we are still trapped in the assumption that extraordinary individuals—usually wealthy men of European descent—make history while the rest of the world’s citizens are passive spectators. The tendency of popular culture to lionize elite leaders at the expense of the multiracial working class immortalized by Herman Melville in Moby Dick is not only inaccurate but corrosive to a republic that depends upon an active populace to function effectively.In turn, this covering up of the role of immigrants from the Global South (referring here to individuals from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa) allows politicians to engage in the politics of divisive scapegoating against minorities and entire nations instead of grappling with real issues. We need a new history curriculum that combines scholarly rigor with the tools of civic engagement that will allow our students to make informed decisions in an increasingly interconnected world.
How can scholars play a role in combatting the renewed assault on the humanity and dignity of so many? We can start by listening to our students, who have been most negatively impacted by the resurgence of white nationalism. I have been teaching on the university level for nearly two decades and my first generation college students, particularly those who hail from cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami, report that they are rarely taught anything about people of Latin American or African descent—or the enormous sacrifices that individuals of these backgrounds have made in the making of democracy in the United States. This appalling indifference allows mainstream politicians and white nationalists alike to ignorantly claim that African Americans and Latinos are permanent outsiders and intruders.
The corrective here is to explain what we can learn as students of history and citizens of a democracy from nations such as Mexico and Haiti—for starters. Few Americans are aware of the fact that Mexico abolished slavery long before the United States, nor that many of the leaders of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21) were individuals of mixed European, Indigenous, and African descent who conceived of an independence war to end chattel bondage and caste oppression of Native peoples. One of the leaders of the Mexican independence struggle, Jose Maria Morelos, even wrote to James Madison proposing a grand Mexican/US alliance against European imperialism. After achieving independence, Mexicans offered escaped slaves sanctuary much to the chagrin of US authorities. Generations of African Americans including Langston Hughes, Carl Hansberry, and Elizabeth Catlett argued that Mexico provided opportunities for freedom unavailable in the US.
Nor do most students of history know that Haiti pioneered the concept of the equality between nations of the Americas at the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace held in Chapultepec, Mexico, in the closing weeks of World War II. In a stunning rebuke to the United States and other nations organized along lines of racial and ethnic hierarchies, the Haitian delegation urged that the Chapultepec conference “recommend to the governments of the American Republics the complete abolition of all political regulations or actions which make possible discriminations against people, based upon race, religion or nationality.” Once the Chapultepec Treaty was signed, African American, Latina/o and Jewish organizations in the United States began invoking it in renewed struggles for civil rights at war’s end.
As these examples demonstrate, the promotion of comparative ethnic studies is a powerful tool for a new kind of multicultural education. When we teach about the turning points in American history we should use rigorous scholarship to emphasize the roles that people from diverse backgrounds played in fraught moments when the future of the republic was at stake. In the case of the Civil War, this does not mean jettisoning Abraham Lincoln from the narrative. It means we take Lincoln at his word when he tells John T. Mills that without the labor and soldiery of hundreds of thousands of African American—most of whom had been slaves their entire lives—the Union would be lost: “Abandon all posts now garrisoned by Black men, take one hundred and fifty thousand men from our side and put them in the battle-field or corn-field against us,” the president told Mills, “and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.” On the eve of the fateful 1864 Presidential Election, Lincoln wanted the American public to understand that the hope of a US victory in the Civil War rested upon the continuing sacrifices of black men and women.
History taught through comparative ethnic and racial lenses also provides glimpses of new ways to teach citizenship in the 21st century. When the Civil War ended, African Americans decided that emancipation in one country was not enough. Rejecting a nationalist approach to the question of freedom, black abolitionist leaders from Florida to California created a coast-to-coast movement to agitate for the cause of emancipation in Brazil, Cuba and other nations. When William Lloyd Garrison proposed to close down the American Anti-Slavery Society at war’s end, the Christian Recorder dissented: “Although we love Mr. Garrison as much as ever and feel that he will work as faithfully in our cause as ever, we by no means endorse his opinion that the Anti-Slavery Society should be disbanded. The Anti-Slavery Society should keep in existence as long as slaves breathe the air anywhere in the world.”
Alongside resolutions and demands to promote voting rights and to disarm the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans organized a national petition campaign to press the administration of Ulysses S. Grant to recognize the Cuban insurgency against the Spanish Empire in 1872. Frederick Douglass was one of the key supporters of the Cuban solidarity movement. In a speech to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1869, Douglas argued that the work of emancipation was an internationalist endeavor: “We are here to-night in the interest of the [N]egro, but we are here also in the interest of patriotism, in the interest of liberty in America, liberty in Cuba, liberty the world over.”
At a mass meeting held at Mother Bethel A.M.E. in Philadelphia in 1873 chaired by the abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, the participants concluded by noting: “We, the colored citizens of Philadelphia, having met in mass meeting to consider the condition of Cuba…. Resolved, That the oppressed of Cuba we have the warmest sympathy; for the patriots now in arms we have admiration, and for the rulers of Spain we have only indignation.” The mass meeting requested, “That the old cohorts of Abolitionists, who made common cause with us in our contentions for liberty, be urged to make the same glorious common cause, with the oppressed of the Spanish dependencies.” The participants urged that “President Grant be requested to reconsider his policy toward the Cuban revolutionists…. and the whole band of Spanish republicans we reach out the right hand of fellowship, and pray that as a reward for the physical freedom they would give the oppressed abroad, an ever balancing Providence may give them political liberty at home.”This internationalist conception of liberty, which I call emancipatory internationalism, has long been a vital thread of black politics. An understanding of this theme allows historians break out of the nationalistic blinders that continue to limit our understanding of the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.
Generations later, African Americans transformed their struggle against disenfranchisement to a global struggle against imperialism and for human rights. At the 1928 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention in Los Angeles, W.E. B. Du Bois explained that the "Disfranchisement of the Negro in Southern States has brought about such distortion of political power in the United States, that a small white oligarchy in the South is the dictator of the Nation." To change this, the “American ballot must be re-established on a real basis of intelligence and character,” Du Bois asserted. The stakes were high: “Only in such way can this nation face the tremendous problems before it: the problem of free speech, an unsubsidized press and civil liberty for all people; the problem of imperialism and the emancipation of Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii from the government of American banks; the overshadowing problem of peace among the nations and of decent and intelligent co-operation in the real advancement of the natives of Africa and Asia, together with freedom for China, India and Egypt.”
W.E.B. Du Bois offers students of history a vision of expansive citizenship interesting in building bridges—and not walls—between people everywhere. During the 1928 presidential election campaign, theAfro-American newspaper sent candidate Herbert Hoover a public questionnaire asking: “Where does Hoover stand on the withdrawal of Marines from Nicaragua and Haiti[?].”Hoover's assistant responded by talking about Hoover’s work during the Mississippi River flood of 1927. The Afro-American offered a stern rebuke: "Mr. Hoover may be only a secretary of commerce now,” theAfro-American’s editors opined, “but he is asking the people of this country to elect him to the presidency. For this reason, the people have a right to ask him—Mr. Hoover, where do you stand on the Haiti and Nicaragua question[?]” The editorial concluded by tying the fate of African Americans to the individuals fighting imperialism in the Americas: "Mr. Hoover, if elected to the presidency would you continue [to] be the bully with the big stick or would you be the big brother to these weaker nations of Central America?" "If you cannot be depended upon to give a square deal to the weak white man in Nicaragua, how can we expect you to give justice to the weak black man at home?"
Enlarging the cast of characters of the active agents of American history also means building upon the successes of labor history to emphasize the indispensable contributions of working class people and immigrants to major reforms. For example, many historical texts continue to focus on the charismatic figure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the making of the New Deal. A closer look at the social movements of the Depression years reveals numerous hitherto unknown heroes whose collective activism put the federal government on notice that the status quo was no longer acceptable. One such grassroots leader was Max Guzmán, one of numerous Mexican American members of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in Chicago. He began working at the Republic Steel Corporation in 1927. A decade later, Guzmán was one of hundreds of Mexican American factory operatives who formed the core of the Little Steel Strike in the spring of 1937. “According to an early president of the SWOC local at Inland, Mexican workers were crucial to the success of the picket lines at East Chicago's steel plants, contributing at times three-fourths of the demonstrators.” Guzmán carried an American flag during an outdoor SWOC mass meeting on May 30, 1937, that was attacked by Chicago police. He was beaten by the police who murdered ten workers during the Memorial Day Massacre. The police arrested Guzmán, called him a Communist and threatened to deport him to Mexico, “any time they felt like it.” In spite of enduring severe obstacles, Guzmán was part of a generation of working class people who pushed President Roosevelt and his cohort of political leaders further than they had originally planned in accepting higher wages, industrial unionism, and Social Security, in other words, the core of New Deal reforms.
The kind of curriculum I am suggesting here creates room to consider the interplay between presidents and seemingly anonymous citizens without denigrating either. This is a kind of learning that promotes the idea of what historian Lawrence Goodwyn called “movement cultures” where people generate democratic spaces where new types of interactions between people from diverse backgrounds takes place. It is a rejection of the view of the American working class as passive receptacles of nationalism and racism. This is an education that emphasizes civic organizing, engagement with the world outside of US borders, and the responsibility of all of us to play a greater part in the daily political life of this nation.
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