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The meme shows a portrait of Thomas Jefferson alongside a recent picture of a black man dressed in similar clothes, claiming that “it should tell you all you need to know about the ban on black history.” Unfortunately, what it told me is likely not what the meme’s creator intended. I knew about Jefferson’s black descendants and his hypocrisy many years before I saw the meme. Certainly, many (if not most) of us white people don’t know as much about black American history as we should. But then, most of us don’t know much about American history, period.
We’re in a state of functional ignorance: We think we know everything we need to know, which means we don’t know enough to know that we don’t know enough.
The Divided Thomas Jefferson
Many people don’t know that Thomas Jefferson used Sarah “Sally” Hemings, one of his slaves, as a concubine. They also don’t know that only two daughters survived to adulthood of the children he had by his wife Martha (Sally’s half-sister). Or that he played the violin. Or that he was a compulsive shopper with expensive tastes who died deeply in debt. Or that he was a governor of Virginia and the first Secretary of State, or that he was heavily involved in the foundation of the University of Virginia. Some people can barely remember that he was an American President.
For a dark secret, Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings was poorly kept. Even during Hemings’ life, some people knew about her. Far from suppressing the information, some have discussed it with all the glee of a dedicated scandal-monger or iconoclast. She comes up in biographies and studies about Jefferson as well as in biographies of people he associated with, such as John Adams. When DNA tests proved that Jefferson had black descendants, it was in newspapers and magazine articles. There’s even a romantic novel and a TV movie. The information is readily available—if you’re interested enough to look for it.
If Thomas Jefferson hadn’t been such an influential person at the founding of the American Republic, he would have been just one more enslaver who abused a person he kept in bondage. His multifaceted brilliance might have been interesting to some, but his hypocrisy about slavery would have been unremarkable. That the young black man is one of Jefferson’s descendants would have been of no more public interest than my own (likely) descent from Virginia enslavers. Jefferson the enslaver is important to black American history mostly because Jefferson the man was essential to American history in many other ways.
History is Story
But why don’t more people know about Jefferson and Sally Hemings? For the same reason, they don’t know about the child Grover Cleveland fathered out of wedlock. Or about Abraham Lincoln’s bouts of severe depression. Or about George S. Patton, Jr.’s dyslexia. Or about the anarchist ideology of Leon Czolgosz. Or the nativist, anti-Catholic American (“Know-Nothing”) Party. Or Donehogawa, also known as Ely S. Parker. Or about Sen. Daniel Inouye and the 442nd “Nisei” Regimental Combat Team. Or the 1979 Hunt silver runup. Or about feminist icon Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of racial eugenics.
The details were never suppressed or “banned.” You just couldn’t be in school long enough to learn all of them. You’ve probably forgotten many if not most of the details of the presumedly Eurocentric history you did learn in school. Elements such as Nat Turner’s rebellion, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1960s race riots, and other data flew by you as you sat in class, bored out of your skull, for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, 32 – 36 weeks a year.
American history is not just one story. On the contrary, it’s a rich, complex tapestry of interwoven narratives, each of which comprises a multitude of other interwoven and interconnected stories. And American history doesn’t exist by itself. Our story weaves into the stories of many countries and many peoples, into the grand tapestry of the human race. What parts of that tapestry matter is subjective, changing according to the storyteller and their audience. Change the perspective, and you tell a different story. Change the details—emphasize some, minimize or ignore others—and you change the story.
History is story before it’s anything else. Modern history is storytelling with source citations and footnotes.
Why Didn’t You Know This?
Most likely, however, that’s not how they taught you history. On average, your teacher probably had about 165 hours in a given year to cover 500-plus years’ worth of stories, each potentially fascinating in its own right, and ensure you learned enough of them to pass tests at the end of the semester (or trimester) and the end of the year, maybe one day to do well on your SATs or ACTs. On surface appearance, that’s a lot of time. Yet in reality, it isn’t enough time to do justice to any particular narrative, let alone to all of them.
What you got instead was a dry, dull, perfunctory recitation of somewhat-connected facts, persons, events, and dates. The textbooks your history teachers used usually contained those biases and agendas your school board and administrators didn’t prefer so much as suffer, often out of tolerant inattention. Those biases and agendas were likely more liberal and inclusive than conservative or Eurocentric in the last four decades. But the books were still dry, dull, and perfunctory. So if you came out of school with an enduring love of history, it likely wasn’t because of your classes but despite your classes.
If you didn’t learn about Sally Hemings in school, it’s because 1) the authors didn’t think her relevant or essential enough to warrant inclusion in your textbook, and 2) nothing you did learn in school made you want to learn more about Thomas Jefferson. If you and your peers don’t discuss the Jefferson-Hemings relationship much, it’s because there are so many other things to talk about, especially in black American history. We don’t need a “ban on black history” to explain the “silence.” Even black Americans have other things to talk about. Sorry, we’re not all monomaniacs.
The Fallacy of the Single Narrative
The real problem our meme creator is having, from my perspective, is not that black history is “banned,” but rather that it’s not taught the way the far left wants it to be taught. That is, it’s not taught to support one—and only one—preferred, authoritative narrative of the black experience in America. If you’re not getting out of black history what they got out of it, if you haven’t come to their conclusions about it, you haven’t been taught black history at all. Therefore, it has been “banned.” In other words, it’s melodramatic baloney.
The most significant flaw of critical race theory, for our purpose, is its assumption that because people from a minority race have many similar experiences of racism, one black person can speak for all black people.[*] The conclusion is not only false but arrogant. Like other individuals, different black people draw different lessons from the past, even from similar experiences. White progressives tend to be more radical about social issues than do blacks and Latinos. Many black intellectuals from across the political spectrum are critics of the woke movement. CRT isn’t the “default” representative black perspective on American history.
I don’t pretend the far left is unique in thinking history should only teach what they believe. Libertarians, conservatives, and white nationalists also believe that “properly taught” history only supports their political stances. (I’ve been guilty of it myself occasionally, and I should know better.) But, pace George Santayana, different people remember the past differently and can learn the wrong things from history as quickly as they can learn nothing. There are so many more stories to tell than those you’ve learned. And even those you’ve learned can be told in different ways.
Tell the Stories as Stories
By the time you read this, Black History Month will be over. But the opportunity for us all, white and black, to learn from black people’s stories won’t be over until we die. To demand that their stories fit a single paradigm (or be judged unworthy to be told) is the same as to stop learning from them. It’s a decision that you already know everything worth knowing; in other words, a choice to remain functionally ignorant. For Christians, it’s a grave failure of both charity and humility, even when it’s done to serve an ostensibly noble political end.
Black history is a story full of stories of suffering, oppression, and tragedy. But it’s also full of stories of perseverance, triumph, heroism, and redemption. So let’s hear, read, and see more African-American stories, by all means. Let them fill us with grief, anger, shame, pride, sorrow, and joy. The problem with how we teach black history is the same as the problem with how we teach American history. Or rather, how we don’t teach it—like that beautiful, multilayered, tragicomic tapestry of people whose words, actions, decisions, strengths, and flaws still impact our lives today.
So tell the stories as stories should be told. But let’s not pretend that all these African-American stories—literally millions of tales—make up only one larger, authoritative narrative of the black American experience. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking they’re all just one story that one African-American will tell the same way as every other African-American. To do that, I firmly believe, commits the same sin as racism by stripping black people of their individuality and subordinating it to a class stereotype. For their uniqueness is part of their intrinsic dignity as God’s children.
[*] Ironically, this assumption appears in a pro-CRT meme meant to assure frightened white conservatives that CRT isn’t really all that bad.
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