*Note: If you have not already, please read Kevin Gannon’s excellent post about this same topic.
The student, a young white woman who I’ll call Tess, stammered as she whispered to me in class. She’d been struggling for over a minute, trying to ask me a question about the Haitian Declaration of Independence. By now, I knew what she really wanted to ask me, but I also knew she was afraid to.
We were analyzing the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Haitian Declaration of Independence. Students were assigned both, and in class, I split them up into groups—one focusing on the U.S. Declaration, the other the Haitian Declaration—for an in-class analytical exercise. I had this idea to treat both documents like recipes, and charge each group with finding the key “ingredients to independence” that each document prescribes. Some students really got into it. In another section, students even compared specific components of the Haitian Declaration to ingredients in a cake. (I recall one student identified violence against France as the “eggs,” which held the whole thing together.)
But this student was in a different section, and was struggling. Struggling not only with the document, but struggling to ask me the question she really wanted to ask.
Finally, when it became apparent that she was too embarrassed to say it, I said it for her.
“Why is it all about race?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tess enthusiastically replied, I think relieved that I knew what she was trying to say, and that I had relieved her of the burden of having to say it out loud. We’d already read quite a few documents about slavery, as it is one of the major themes of my U.S. History I survey course. The focus of my survey course is on North America, but I also emphasize to students how North American slavery exists in a transatlantic context: the trade in slaves was inextricably bound with trade in goods, and linked the Americas to the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. We discuss the creation of a race-based system of slavery and partus sequitur ventrem in the 17th Century. We examine advertisements for runaway slaves that show this racial system in action, as prejudices against enslaved and free black peoples—everything from assumptions that blacks were mentally inferior and inherently docile (and thus designed for slavery) to beliefs that blacks, especially black men, were naturally criminal, crafty, and violent (and thus had to be enslaved for the protection of whites)—fueled a violent, society-wide system of exploitation based on the cultural inventions of whiteness or blackness that determined every aspect of one’s life. Some of the cultural and legal specifics of whiteness and blackness differed in the Caribbean, but slavery in the Caribbean was ruthlessly violent and oppressive, not least because the ratio of white masters to black slaves was so skewed in favor of the enslaved. After all this, I detected in her question an exasperation with the document and with the recurring theme of slavery and racism. Why did everything have to be about race?
She was certainly right that race is prominent in the document. It condemns white French as a separate people, and even prescribes hunting them down and driving them out, or killing them, in order to preserve the freedom of the Haitian peoples. “The difference between its cruelty and our patient moderation, its color and ours,” the document decrees, “the great seas that separate us, our avenging climate, all tell us plainly that they are not our brothers, that they never will be, and that if they find refuge among us, they will plot again to trouble and divide us.”
But honestly, I didn’t think students would find this surprising. After all the time we’d spent discussing colonial slavery and the slave trade, it should be obvious why the Haitian Declaration of Independence—published on January 1, 1804, after over a decade of bloody struggle by slaves on the French colony of Saint-Domingue gave rise to Haiti, the only black republic in the Atlantic World—is “all about race.”
And yet, here she was, voicing confusion about why she had to read and analyze yet another document that dealt with bigotry at the heart of the American story.
Anyone who teaches American history understands that this sentiment has real-world impact.
We are all still reeling from the result of the November 8 election that saw Hillary Clinton, whom nearly every major media outlet and newspaper had dubbed all but a shoo-in for the election, defeated by Donald Trump, a man who throughout his campaign called most Mexican immigrants “rapists,” mocked a reporter with a disability, mistook one of his own black supporters for a black protestor, calling him a “thug,” and dismissed his bragging about sexually assaulting women a “locker room talk.” He has attacked Muslims and black citizens, advocated a complete halt to immigration for refugees from the Middle East, and provided a platform for the xenophobic, racist ideology of the alt-right. Hillary Clinton responded by running ads that essentially replayed clips of Trump talking. She understood—as do we—that Trump’s actions and words are part of a racist, sexist, nativist American cultural, legal, and political status quo that reformers and radicals throughout the generations have worked valiantly to oppose. The advances we’ve made, from the end of slavery and the enfranchisement of blacks and women, to greater political and economic opportunities for women and rights and respect for LGBTQIA people, including gay marriage, are accomplishments to be celebrated. There will always be a subset of people who are actively committed to bigotry. But our society, as a whole, has embraced these changes for the progress they clearly represent. She assumed—as did so many of us—that Trump’s actions and words would be viewed by most Americans, Republican and Democrat, as vile, reprehensible, unmistakable evidence of his unfitness to lead. Her loss has left us staggering to explain what kind of country we truly live in, for it seems so different than the one we thought we knew. And for those of us who teach American history, it leaves us with another question: how do we teach inclusion in the Age of Trump?
For better and for worse, Americans look to the office of the presidency to reflect our basic, shared values. When we elect someone who has said and done the things Trump has done, it naturally leads us to ask what that says about us. For Jamelle Bouie at Slate, Trump’s election is ironclad proof that our nation is still just as committed to white supremacy as it has ever been. “With his jeremiads against Hispanics and Muslims—with his visions of dystopian cities and radicalized refugees—Trump told white Americans that their fears and anger were justified,” Bouie writes, “And that this fear and anger should drive their politics. Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.” Bouie reminds us this is not a new phenomenon in American history. During both the era of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movements, gains made on behalf of blacks (and, especially during the Civil Rights Era, we might add, gains made by women as well), faced a powerful conservative backlash, leading to the nearly century-long era of Jim Crow after Reconstruction, and the rise of segregationists like George Wallace in the 1960s. For Bouie, Trump’s election is a signal that our national values have not moved an inch since the days of violent lynchings and de facto and de jure segregation.
The evidence in my classroom suggests that our society is less reminiscent of Wallace’s rabid commitment to racism, and more along the lines of what one of Bouie’s colleagues, William Saletan, described when he identified “five baskets of deplorables” who sided with Trump in the election. Only one of those “baskets,” Saletan argues, were actively committed to his vitriol. Others were “people who don’t see racism or sexism anywhere,” or “people who don’t think it’s a big deal.” They may have not liked what Trump said, but they disliked Clinton more. They are, in other words, people who voice a sentiment similar to my student (who did not share with me how she voted, and I didn’t ask). They’re the people who may concede that racism and sexism are problems, but not that important. They’re people who don’t think about either issue as structural, built into the very scaffolding of our institutions and our culture, and reinforced in countless ways by individual (in)action. They see them as purely reflective of the most obviously vile individual actions. This sentiment—not that bigotry is good, but that it’s just not important enough to make such a fuss about—is one that I encounter in my class, and I know my colleagues do too. Sometimes it will appear in my reviews in the form of exasperated complaints that the class spends too much time on race. Sometimes it takes the form of a student like Tess who, despite all the background we’d had up to that point, just couldn’t understand why the Haitian Declaration of Independence had to be just slathered in race-talk. Couldn’t they—and we—focus on something else?
Those of us fortunate enough to be able to teach U.S. history at the college level already face pressure to compromise the rigor of our classes. We sometimes face pressure to ease up on our grading, assign less reading, and give points for literally everything, including just showing up to class. We are chided for being “political” or “opinionated,” often because we present a history with which students may be unfamiliar, and which challenges some of their most deeply-held but seldom interrogated assumptions about the United States. Adjuncts have it worse. They are asked to prep their classes, do all their grading, make themselves available to students, often with no institutional support and obscenely low pay, and no benefits.
Make no mistake: under Trump, our job will get harder. It is difficult to tell exactly what the president-elect has planned for higher education at this point, but it is clear that Trump has no patience for ideas that conflict with his own. He has tapped Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart News, a far-right website that, like Trump, has been enthusiastically endorsed by white nationalists. Trump has given a voice to nativist, racist, sexist bigotry; he has emboldened purveyors of hate and acted as a conduit through which their message can enter the mainstream. But Trump did not win because David Duke and his racist ilk supported him. Trump won because a huge swath of mostly white Americans—many of whom are understandably frustrated because of decreasing job opportunities and the increasingly daunting challenge of getting a college degree on working-class pay—were convinced by his empty promises to bring their jobs back and return America to its glorious, pristine past. Never mind that that time never really existed the way Trump and his supporters imagine. Never mind that Trump’s promises to bring back jobs and “law and order” went hand-in-hand with his scapegoating of Muslims and his condemnation of Black Lives Matter. Never mind, in other words, that his message of prosperity was inextricably intertwined with his message of bigotry, with both held together by a nostalgic distortion of the nation’s past that far too many in our society still accept as Gospel. Trump was going to shake up the system, his followers believed. The bragging about sexually assaulting women, the call for a complete “shut-down” of Muslims entering the country, the claim that most Mexicans were rapists and that BLM activists were “thugs”—that was just Trump speaking his mind against “political correctness.”
Under Trump, I fear that the dismissals of nuanced historical analyses of our nation’s past will increase. I fear that our attempts to examine the pervasiveness and power of prejudice of all kinds will face growing backlash from officials, from administrators, and from our own students, who want us to tell them the propagandistic bedtime story Trump has promised to restore. I fear that if we tell them that that story is a lie on its face, meant to mollify the masses into compliance, and to enlist the anger and frustration of white citizens against nonwhite citizens, immigrants, women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people, we will be labeled (even more than we already are) the “thought police,” the enforcers of “political correctness” who are too focused on race, class, gender, and other such topics to teach “real” history.
But when I think about how the conversation with Tess ended, I have some hope. I briefly reviewed with her the history we’d discussed, and which she had read in the textbook. We discussed the system of oppression that kept the slaves of Haiti enslaved, a system that was rooted in racial violence. With that, she understood why race was so explicitly a part of the Haitian Declaration of Independence—and how fundamental it was to the political, cultural, and economic history of the Atlantic World.
By stressing the interconnectedness of concepts like race and gender to issues like economics, politics, and culture, I strive in my classroom to show students how fundamental these concepts are to our history. I also strive to show students how interconnected issues like race and gender—topics that students may think were only tangential to the “real” story of America—were to the economic and cultural realities that affected people’s lives in the past, and in our own present. Attempts to marginalize immigrants and black Americans harm our entire society, not only by making us less diverse and inclusive, but also by fostering racial and ethnic prejudices that make it more difficult for workers—white and nonwhite alike—to obtain better wages and better opportunities. By confronting these prejudices and acknowledging them as central to our history, we empower our entire society to build a better country, and a better world.
That is why we must keep doing what we are doing. Talk about structural racism and sexism. Hit hard the legacy of bigotry, the way it denies power and privilege to women and minorities, and the way it’s defended as “traditional,” “normal,” “natural.” Recognize that our biggest challenge will not come from loudmouth bigots, but from students socialized to think of these prejudices as simply not that big a deal. A lot of students will roll their eyes. Some won’t pay attention. You will undoubtedly get comments on your student evals complaining about how often they have to read and talk about these issues.
But you will foster a dialogue that many students will appreciate, even if they never say anything to you. You will help some students see the past differently. For some students, the lessons will get through. In the Age of Trump, our job of teaching inclusion by teaching U.S. history will be more important than ever.