The polarization of our political discourse is as chilling as it is repugnant. Moreover, the restrictive measures taken by those elected to offices of public trust regarding fundamental concepts of history will undoubtedly have severe ramifications to future generations of Texans. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the unique aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill echoed, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Over the summer, with the stroke of a pen, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Texas House Bill (HB 3979) into law. This new law forbids a plethora of necessary topics from being discussed by Texas classroom educators, especially regarding issues related to race and racism in the United States of America. “America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a court opinion a few months ago. Texas officials don’t seem to share that opinion.
The actual text of Texas HB 3979 states the following: “A teacher, administrator, or other employee of a state agency, school district, or open-enrollment charter school may not require or make part of a course the concept that with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
Let’s pause for just a moment and think about those “authentic founding principles.” Consider the Declaration of Independence.
Despite the herculean efforts of its author, Thomas Jefferson, to articulate the God-given, natural rights of those who would later have the privilege of calling themselves Americans, this document doesn’t reference women. Nor does it reference the estimated 200 persons of color enslaved by Jefferson’s very own family. He wasn’t the only historic figure profiting from slave labor. George Washington, James Madison, and almost every other southern delegate of the Second Continental Congress did as well.
The first legitimate effort to abolish the evil known as American slavery was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, a haphazardly drafted Executive Order by President Abraham Lincoln. It sought to emancipate enslaved persons of color in the rebelling states—states that, at the time, didn’t even recognize Lincoln as their president. Slavery was not officially abolished until states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. Even then, slaves in Texas were not notified of their emancipation until June 19, 1865.
In the United States, we literally fought a war amongst ourselves to abolish our nation’s original sin. For those who disagree, here’s an excerpt from our state’s secession document, known as the Declaration of Causes: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
How are our “nurseries of democracy” supposed to ignore this?
We have an obligation to teach students the truth, including difficult truths about American sins, like how Andrew Jackson defied the Court and had soldiers forcibly remove Native Americans from their land. Or how Japanese Americans were unconstitutionally detained during World War II, even though we (rightfully) abhor Nazi concentration camps.
The greatness of our nation was never about who we were. The greatness of America is about who we have the potential to become.
With each passing generation, liberty and equity have been extended to include persons of color, women, and every soul who calls America home. We believe our nation’s founders had the right concept; they just lacked the moral understanding of inclusivity. Today, the loudest voices are seldomly right, and our generation has the education, power and resources to change America. Our faith has sustained us amidst economic depressions. Our resilience has led us beyond the racial and political strife to attain universal suffrage for all American citizens. Our courage has lifted us from the quicksand of calamity onto a foundation of strength and autonomy.
To speak of America’s past is to learn from it. Despite what our country has done wrong, we have also benefited from what our ancestors did right. Let us simply teach our real American history.