American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it. – James Baldwin
James Baldwin said these words to a group of educators during a tumultuous time for teachers and all Americans alike–1963, the same year that segregation was being fought in Birmingham, Alabama and across the country, the year of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” months after the assassination of Medgar Evers. Somehow, despite the trials of existing in America as a black man, Baldwin was able to acknowledge both the beauty and the horror of American history. If Baldwin can hold both of those conflicting lenses, I expect my students to be able to do so, too.
In 2018, my students have seen their peers across the country killed by school shooters, families separated at the US-Mexico border, and the continued unearthing of the prevalence sexual assault toward women in the #MeToo movement. It has undoubtedly been a tough year for those living in the United States of a multitude of ages, genders, races, and nationalities. Given this, it is easy to be cynical, to let our minds spiral and get stuck in the terrible. To see news of the most recent person of color to be shot at the hands of the police and to throw your hands up in frustration. To hear the President refer to countries in the Global South as “shitholes” and want to turn the news off indefinitely.
But what of the beautiful? When the news cycle hones in on the most recent terrible thing, it’s easy to forget that we live–and our students learn–in one of the most powerful, developed, and interconnected societies in the world. Many narratives of American history advance central values of liberty, social and economic mobility, and equality. While there is much to be critical about in these narratives, there is underlying truth to these values, as there is a reason why they have woven their way into the fabric of our national story.
So how do we reconcile the beautiful and the terrible? As educators, how do we ensure that our students learn how to be healthy-critical of American history–identifying and grappling with the negative aspects of our national story, while also recognizing the progress and beauty ingrained in our past?
A common phrase I say to my high school students is, “it’s both.” Yes, mass incarceration continues to be a major problem in the United States, but we have seen decreased rates of recidivism in recent years. Yes, capitalism allows for dramatic inequalities between economic classes in the United States, but it has also allowed many in our country to attain their American Dream. When seeing both, it does not mean that the terrible and beautiful balance each other out–more often than not the balance will tip in one way or another–but it is important to find the other side. For without examining the terrible, there is no progress, and without the beauty there is no hope.
Baldwin opened his talk with,
“To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’ Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”
Some of our students are going to see the identification and analysis of the terrible as anti-American; they might question your methods and, subtly or not-so-subtly, accuse you of indoctrination. Others will see highlighting the beauty of American history as a form of erasure, that you are not honoring the harm done to various peoples throughout time. Regardless, we still need to “go for broke,” to teach our students that no one narrative of United States history will ever be complete, and certainly not those that elucidate only the terrible or the beautiful.
In many ways, going for broke in this regard isn’t as extreme as it sounds. I have found that the most effective ways to get students to “see both” are to present them will multiple historical narratives and to be diligent about bringing up the concept in conversation. One topic of conversation that can really spin students around–and where the balance of terrible and beautiful can swing drastically, depending on the example–is the First Amendment. For example, issues of hate speech. Hate speech is terrible, of course. But isn’t the First Amendment beautiful, and don’t we want to avoid the slippery slope of limiting our freedom of speech? Seeing both is also a standard practice in good writing–exploring the counter narrative.
Seeing both starts with us as educators. Regardless of our own political and historical bias, we need to be willing to present and raise the side of the story that makes us uncomfortable, or that we’d rather not share. The importance of modeling here cannot be understated. Through this, we will encourage our students to be more thoughtful, more critical, and more aware and, in doing so, hopefully we can raise this next generation to tip the scales toward the beautiful.