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Teach Your Children

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

The week of August 21 has significance in American history – it marks the anniversary of the arrival of perhaps the first enslaved Africans in 1619, of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, the massacre of abolitionists in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863, and it is the anniversary of the effective date of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act seeking to ban discrimination on race, gender, color, and nationality in public schools. Today there are young people planning their outfits and getting excited (or possibly depressed) about the start of a new school year. As revisionist history abounds, what will they be taught?

Maybe they will learn about the Jamestown settlement – that men and boys arrived in Virginia in 1607 to find gold and new travel routes. They built a fort to protect themselves from the native people who were a tad miffed at the new settlers. These hardy men and boys were so afraid to leave their fort that they actually sent one of their own back to England for supplies rather than learn to hunt and fish local game or farm some of the most fertile soil on the planet. They were hapless for years until someone came with tobacco seeds which became a profitable venture. Soon, they needed cheap labor to farm this cash crop and imported [enslaved people] indentured servants to the settlement in 1619. Shortly thereafter, they brought over some fine English women to marry and with whom to grow families.

Basically: a bunch of men and boys (who definitely were not gay) sailed halfway around the world and squatted on someone else’s property. Many got very sick and some died. Those who did not die were given magic seeds that could grow a plant that could be dried and smoked. Even though smoking this plant could make people sick and die, it was addictive so people clamored for it. This could yield a big profit…but only if farmed by very, very cheap – okay free – labor. And since that worked out, they brought over some mail order brides with whom to make babies.

As to Nat Turner’s rebellion – this might be more difficult because it requires knowledge that slavery was not actually a beneficial employment opportunity. Rarely do people in jobs programs feel the need to kill their “teachers” in order to assert their own humanity. After Turner's rebellion, rather than reflect upon the shortcomings of the skill building and job training programs they developed, the “teachers” doubled down. This resulted in more torture, brutal lynchings, and harsher rules and regulations for those who continued to enroll in the jobs program (which neither they nor their progeny could quit). Apparently, it was the people suffering under it, and not the system, that was flawed.

Let’s get real: chattel slavery was the most unspeakable horror in this nation’s history riddled with unspeakable horrors. The reason enslavers lived in fear was because deep down they had to know that treating people as property, separating families, subjecting human beings to constant degradation, terror, and torture, and pretending to be superior based on skin color is simply abhorrent and, well, karma is a bitch. Individual liberty is not only an American right, but it is a human right. Depriving anyone of that basic dignity will eventually end in bloodshed. Let’s work on not blaming the victim.

One hot topic in those 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates was, once again, [slavery] jobs programs which Douglas wanted to spread far and wide and Lincoln wanted to contain. Arguably, Lincoln won the debates, but Douglas won the senate seat. Turns out that in 1858, state legislatures, and not the voters, selected United States senators. The Illinois legislature was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats who defied the wishes of their own constituents and determined Douglas should be the next senator.

This historical reality may encourage class discussions about other times that state legislatures have ignored the will of the people, establishing unpopular and even erroneous rules and laws based upon the whim of a few rather than the hopes of the many. While this could lead to lively and interesting conversations, it would involve other topics that, like slavery, are not “real” like climate change, abortion, voting, sexuality, bodily autonomy, police brutality, erroneous convictions, and the existence of people who are not white evangelicals.

Anyway, following the debates and electoral loss, Lincoln dusts himself off and gets elected president. This irks the heck out of some folks who decide it would be better to start a war rather than live by rules they did not make (hey – maybe that Nat Turner guy had a point). This results in Lincoln presiding over and then leading the Union to win the Civil War, outlawing slavery through the 13th Amendment, getting a huge monument in Washington, DC, and his own holiday. People today do not remember that Douglas lost the presidency not only to Lincoln, one of the best presidents in American history, but also to Franklin Pierce, one of the absolute worst, or that despite being a senator from a “free” state, he owned and profited from a plantation and over 100 slaves thanks to property from his second wife.

Just so we’re clear – the August, 1858 debates were for a U.S. Senate seat which Douglas would win because the legislature and Douglas were of the same political party and not because that reflected the will of the people of Illinois. But Lincoln would be elected President two short years later and then would go down in history as an American giant and Douglas would be largely forgotten. Again, karma.

Now, let’s give a whirl to the massacre in Lawrence in 1863. Kansas still had that new state smell, having been admitted to the Union as a “free state” just two years earlier. Missouri was home to many folks who felt strongly about not being in a "free state” and wanted to share their reasons with their neighbors in Kansas. So, they often came over with pies and pleasantries to talk to folks in Kansas about the benefits of restricted freedom. Only kidding, they wreaked havoc. On August 21, 1863, about 450 men, including Jesse and Frank James, traveled to Lawrence, Kansas, the abolitionist stronghold of Kansas, where they murdered over 150 men in front of their families. That's right. Folks from Missouri made their way to Lawrence, Kansas, to kill people in cold blood because they lived in a city with abolitionist tendencies.

Fast forward to August 21, 1974 where we are forced to wonder why Congress had to pass a law banning school segregation more than 350 years after the first enslaved Africans were forced into labor on these shores and more than 150 years after the Reconstruction Amendments and more than 20 years after the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed desegregated schools and equal education for all school children. Here's a question – if the peculiar institution benefitted African Americans, why was it necessary to pass a civil rights law specifically seeking equal education for poor kids and kids of color well over a hundred years after it ended?

Just by asking that question, we open a conversation about redlining and segregated schools and race bias and prejudice and Jim Crow and white supremacy. And slavery. Happy anniversary.

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