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Sunday, December 4, 2016

History Without Hate?

-- By Tom Phillips
"this election showed... the emergence of white people as a minority-style political bloc."  NY Times, 12/4/2016

“Let the grassroots turn on the hate"   Stephen Bannon, Trump adviser 
When one of my daughters was in middle school--  a public school, in New York City -- she came home one day with the following reflection:  "I hate English people."

 I asked why, and she answered with a litany of all the horrors visited by English colonialists on native peoples in the course of their imperial rule.  That was all she knew about "English people."  She didn't even know she was one of them.

When I informed her of her own heritage -- Anglo-Saxon and Celtic -- she was puzzled.  She was old enough to realize the implication -- that she ought to hate herself.  

The next day I went in to talk to the teacher.  When she heard what this 12-year-old had got out of her class, she too was puzzled.  The last thing she wanted was for students to hate themselves.  The school was also busy teaching self-esteem and self-love.  Unfortunately, they were pitching that message to a diverse student body by giving them someone to hate -- an undefined class of imperialists loosely interpreted as "English people."

This is one of the ways that white people in America came to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority.  We're not, of course.  We're still a privileged plurality, assured of special treatment by the cops, the courts, and financial institutions.  But as long as as we teach history in a way that casts Anglo-Europeans mainly or exclusively as oppressors, we reject and alienate them just as we have rejected minorities in the past.  This is one source of the resentment felt by less fortunate whites against an intellectual regime they have characterized as "politically correct."  The hate they are now acting out is payback for their long years not just in the economic doldrums, but also the doghouse of history.

My own father grew up in the doghouse -- as a white southerner, from a family that had probably owned slaves at some point.  He was also the least racist person I ever knew, sympathetic but never condescending to African-Americans, concerned for their advancement in a society that was stacked against them.  Still, he never renounced his family or his North Carolina heritage.  Hearing northern liberals go on and on about the evils of the South, he would just say quietly, "they don't understand the history."

The only book I recall him reading to me was Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" tales.  This was African-American folklore from the South, collected and written up by a white southern journalist in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.  Harris said he wrote them to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementos of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."

The tales, published between 1880 and 1905, were immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South.  Mark Twain said of Harris, "in the matter of writing the African-American dialect, he is the only master the country has produced."

Joel Chandler Harris
My father read these tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox to me, I think partly as a literary education, and partly as a curative to history as misrepresented by the victors.  In the stories the winner is always the little rabbit, who uses charm and stealth to overcome the arrogant fox.  There's no hate in "Uncle Remus," but plenty of payback. 

Would it be possible to teach history without hate?  Of course, you have to cover the main events, the military and political battles that shape the life of nations.  As we know, those battles never end.  But my note to the teachers would be to leaven history with a lot more of the humanities. 

In his quiet way, Pop taught me something about history, via characters from folklore.  He never mentioned slavery or the Civil War, and Uncle Remus barely alludes to it.  But in the deep connection between the black story-teller and the little white boy sitting at his feet (mirrored in the connection between the black oral tradition and the white journalist who rendered it so carefully) was the germ of an idea -- of a South where blacks and whites knew and respected each other in a way that's unknown to most northerners.

Pop wasn't defending slavery.  He was saying what Joel Chandler Harris knew -- the history that really counts is hidden.  The past comes alive not in tallies of war dead, but in living works of the imagination; not in hate, but in common humanity.  

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips 

For an example of teaching history without hate, through the arts, click here

For more perverse pedagogy, click here