Teaching Imperialism, Past and Present

Over the last couple of weeks, two things in particular have gotten me thinking about the ways in which I approach one of the most enduring themes of United States history in my classes. First, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath produced what’s become an absolute cataclysm in Puerto Rico. Second, as the awful news from the Caribbean unfolded, I was also reading Chris Hayes’s recent book, A Colony in a Nation. The juncture of these two-the rare incidence where one can read about a theory simultaneously with the processes that give it empirical credibility-affirmed that studying US imperialism is absolutely essential for a critical understanding of our present day. And I don’t just mean the “Puerto Rico is a US territory and its inhabitants US citizens” kind of understanding, either (though it’s an open question how many people in the current administration possess that knowledge). Instead, I’m wondering if Imperialism ought not to be the framework we use to organize the entire narrative of United States history when we ask our students to interpret it with us.

The Trump administration’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico-grudging, clueless, and mocking-represents not a change in policy, but merely a new willingness to publicly dismiss a people so long relegated to quasi-citizenship. This liminal state occupied by Puerto Ricans is quite literally taxation without representation. No Electoral College vote, a purely symbolic envoy to Congress, and a “territorial” designation preventing the island from acquiring the constitutional prerogatives of an actual state combine to place Puerto Rico so far outside the national political conscience that many Americans think it’s a different country. Puerto Rico isn’t the only US colony, of course; Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands are also subordinated to an empire that takes pains to see itself as anything but.

This is the narrative of imperialism with which we and our students are most familiar, right? The entrance of the US onto the imperial stage, already crowded with European nations. The scramble for Africa, the carving up of Asia and the South Pacific, and a scooping up Caribbean islands. The Spanish-American War unit of our survey courses. Perhaps we even connect this set of events and processes to Euro-Americans’ territorial expansion in the colonial, early national, and antebellum eras. The continuities are certainly there: those advocating for annexation of the Philippines employed a trans-oceanic version of the arguments used by the “All Mexico” politicians of 1847-1848, for example. On either side of the Civil War, proponents of empire-from Jefferson to Madison Grant-claimed a “manifest destiny” for the United States. According to this triumphalist narrative, its (white) people, its republican institutions, its Protestant Christianity made the US inherently superior to whomever occupied the space into which the American state desired to move. Thus, like air into a vacuum, the inexorable march of “civilization” and “progress” would place the US into its natural position-its “destiny”-as a continental, then global, power. Again, we know this and we teach this. And we try to help our students understand that the roots of the complex global conflicts involving today’s United States run deep indeed.

Might we, however, employ the concept of imperialism to describe more than just the US’s actions towards external peoples and states? Here, Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation is instructive. Hayes takes his title from Richard Nixon’s speech at the 1968 Republican national convention, where he declared that Black Americans “do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” Yet, Hayes argued, that’s precisely what has occurred throughout US history:

But the terrifying truth is that we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key. [p. 32] 

Hayes points out that at the same time Nixon warned against the “colony in a nation,” many African American activists and academics were already making the argument that US “race relations”-particularly between whites and blacks-were more accurately conceived as “internal colonization.” This argument was extended and amplified by scholars and activists employing the theoretical construct of Settler Colonialism to explore the nexus of imperialism, expansionism, and racism in Euro-American “settler societies.” What Hayes’s book does, it seems to me, is to bring that conceptual toolbox into a venue that’s accessible for, say, a survey course. In doing so, he makes clear parallels between the familiar outward-facing imperialism and imperialist hegemony over nonwhite peoples exercised by white Americans:

The colony pays tribute to the Nation. The citizens enjoy tangible gains at the expense of the subjects, even though, or especially when, those gains aren’t material. While in some clear cases quantifiable dollars move from one realm to the other,a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being, is far more common and far more insidious [p.215]

I can imagine asking my students which is more accurately described by Hayes’s passage: Puerto Rico or the African American community, and think of the rich set of essays I could get in response. Or ask my students to use the “colony in a nation” construct to assess various instances of territorial expansion.

But beyond the immediate potential for good discussion-starters and deep-thought essay prompts, Hayes’s book offered me the chance to consider how I’m teaching US history in ways that demonstrate its relevance for my students. (I purposefully avoid using the phrase “make it relevant,” as I believe history is already relevant; we need to convey, not invent, that relevance for students.) We know students learn better when they are able to make connections between course materials and their own lives and experiences. This establishing of relevance ensures engagement with the material that is both cognitive and affective . If I mean what I say when I tell students that history is not the record of some remote disconnected past, but a presence with us today, I need to be sure I’m giving them the tools to discern that presence. I’ve often found that my attempts to show the current relevance for past events don’t make that connection explicitly enough, particularly for my survey students.

Maybe the answer is to assign not just “history books” and primary historical sources, but also a contemporary text like Hayes’s that draws upon both historical and current events. Maybe the answer lies in using an organizing principle like Imperialism in my courses-and doing so in ways that go beyond a superficial current events shout-out (“Hey kids, Puerto Rico’s in the news!”) to challenge students to see larger structures and connections in the American past. In times like ours, where it’s abundantly clear (with apologies to William Faulkner) that the past is neither dead nor past, getting students to a place where they discern those structures and connections is something worth doing indeed.

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