You’ll be excused for thinking that Donald Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I had little in common. But last week’s news of RBG’s death and Trump’s announcement that he’ll form a 1776 Commission tasked with promoting patriotic education left me thinking about how all three of us grew up studying the same version of American history.
I’ve long been interested in history. During third-grade trips to the library, I gravitated toward books with bright orange covers: biographies of famous Americans. Maybe because so few women were in the series, I specifically recall reading about Julia Ward Howe and Dolly Madison. Black Americans? There was George Washington Carver.
In eighth grade I learned that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over whether states could leave the Union.
In college I took enough history classes (including student teaching) to become certified to teach high school history in the state of Virginia. My history teachers were all men, and the material we studied was mainly about war and conquest. Good American men (all of them white) led other men into battle and through their courage and superior abilities overcame the enemy. Then men (all of them white) helped the country recover from whichever war they’d fought so that they’d be ready to fight the next one.
My current writing project has taken me to North Carolina newspapers from the 1890s. Editors supported an amendment to the state constitution imposing a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. No one was subtle about the amendment’s purpose. It was to “deprive the Negro from suffrage” and “restore to white men the rightful superiority which God gave them.” The amendment passed.
In Begin Again Eddie Gaude, refers to the lies about American history. “According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent….[But] the United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles.”
Trump says that in contrast to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project his 1776 Commission will teach a more patriotic history. I fear he wants to return to stories of white men and their wars. After all, there’s nothing like conquest to make a man feel virile. The commission will probably add a sprinkle of well-behaved women and Blacks who knew their place. Omit lynchings, Black disenfranchisement, immigrants kept in detention camps, race riots, labor riots, women arrested for distributing literature on contraception. Oh, and slavery of course, except masters who were kind to their slaves.
In her youth RBG, too, studied the “old-fashioned” approach to American history. Instead of limiting her education, though, to white men’s glorious achievements, she paid attention to the history of racial and gender inequality. To the history of Black disenfranchisement and job discrimination against Blacks and women. Instead of thinking about battles won, she focused on those yet needing to be fought—not on a battlefield but in a courtroom. And in the process she made history.