Arguably the most important theme in American history is “the domination of black America by white America.” In order to understand the way white America perceives the history of race relations in the U.S., it’s instructive to examine the bestselling books of the 19th and 20th centuries: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, both of which take race as an important theme. Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents slavery as a moral evil to be fought at all costs, while Gone With the Wind idealizes a society founded on slavery—the antebellum South. Modern history textbooks tend to side with Stowe, not Mitchell: they present slavery as an inhuman, evil institution.
In this chapter, Loewen will cover a lot of ground in a relatively few number of pages, and he suggests the scope of his project by discussing two books written nearly a century apart—Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind. By bring up these two works of fiction, Loewen also implies that the chapter will not only examine the history of race in America; it will also study the way that Americans’ perception of race and racism has changed over the centuries.
Most history textbooks before the 1970s didn’t emphasize the fact that the Civil War was, in many ways, a result of slavery. When, in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, its politicians condemned the Northern States for refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act: the legislation that allowed runaway slaves to be captured and returned to their masters, even when they’d left the state. South Carolina, along with the other ten states that seceded, stressed its people’s rights to own slaves and protect their property, and listed these rights as a primary reason for their secession. Despite this, pre-1970 textbooks emphasize such causes as tariff disagreements and an idealistic commitment to states’ rights. Surprisingly, many of the most recent textbooks have begun to re-emphasize tariffs and states’ rights and downplay the role that slavery played in secession.
Loewen begins with the premise that the Civil War was waged due in large part because of slavery in the Southern states, and cites the reasons that the Southern states actually gave when they seceded. Even though it seems clear that Loewen believes that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, he also offers a meta-history of how textbooks have discussed the causes of the Civil War throughout the second half of the 20th century. In doing so, Loewen conveys the idea that history isn’t a rigid, agreed-upon set of facts, but rather a constant process of interpretation, reflecting the biases of the historians themselves.
Partly because of their high school textbooks, Americans have many mistaken ideas about slavery. Most people would be surprised to learn that slaves were an important part of the Northern states’ economies, not just their Southern counterparts—indeed, the first state to legalize slavery was Massachusetts. History textbooks present slavery as unambiguously evil, but they suggest that it was largely limited to the South. The reality is that slavery—and racism, the ideology that justifies slavery—was a fundamental part of the making of the United States. History textbooks do a poor job of studying the relationship between racism and slavery. They present slavery as an obsolete historical phenomenon. But even now that slavery has largely vanished from the U.S., the ideology of racism survives, encouraging people to believe that whites are superior to blacks.
As Loewen describes them, history textbooks use a series of strategies to portray slavery as an isolated, obsolete historical phenomenon that didn’t play a major role in the economy of the United states as a whole (just some Southern states). The problem with presenting slavery in this light is that it doesn’t do justice to the ideology that justified and celebrated slavery—white supremacy, which is alive and well in America in the 21st century—or portray how its economic effects continue today. Even though racism is in some ways the most lasting legacy of slavery, textbooks imply that slavery has no significant legacy in America.
Textbooks also ignore the racism in the thinking of figures as different as Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, and Woodrow Wilson. Many students would be surprised to learn that almost all the presidents before Abraham Lincoln owned slaves and believed that it was their right as whites to do so. One textbook notes that Thomas Jefferson was “shy” and refused to wear a wig, but never once mentions that he was a proud slave-owner and an eloquent advocate for the expansion of slavery in the United States.
Textbooks’ unwillingness to discuss the racism of the Founding Fathers and presidents is another good example of their tendency to “heroify” historical figures instead of presenting them honestly. Loewen argues that textbook authors must know what they’re doing when they omit a discussion of Jefferson’s racism—textbooks mention almost everything about Jefferson’s life except that he owned slaves!
Slavery was not an isolated historical phenomenon: the growth of slavery in the United States profoundly influenced America’s society and foreign policy. For instance, George Washington, a lifelong slave-owner, gave huge loans to French planters in Haiti to help them suppress their slaves; a decade later, Jefferson did the same. The only early president who didn’t fund Haitian planters was John Adams—not coincidentally, one of the only early presidents who owned no slaves. Furthermore, American territorial expansion until the Civil War was largely due to the influence of slavers who needed more land for their slaves to farm. In all, the importance of slavery to America’s economy helped make America an expansionist, imperialist nation and encouraged America’s leaders to abandon the supposed U.S. ideals of equality, democracy, and self-determination.
While most history textbooks present slavery as being limited to the Southern colonies both economically and culturally, Loewen shows that slavery influenced the way that all Americans—even American presidents—conceived of the world. Loewen’s argument is that the existence of a normalized, large-scale system for the enslavement of human beings in the United States encouraged American politicians to enact more brutal, imperialist policies in other countries, such as Haiti: because American politicians were used to depriving human beings of freedom in the U.S., they were more comfortable doing so abroad as well.
Almost every history textbook devotes a lot of space to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the important Democratic Party leader of the 1850s and 60s. However, textbooks emphasize the spectacle of the debates and the eloquence of the speakers, rather than going into detail about their ideas. The truth is that both speakers had some white supremacist ideas and emphasized that whites must always remain socially superior to blacks. During the debates, Lincoln said, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races.” And yet, later in his life, Lincoln was a passionate advocate for equality between the races. Instead of conveying the complexity of Lincoln’s views, textbooks paint him as a pragmatic politician. If they were to depict him as an imperfect figure who, in many ways, transcended his own racism toward the end of his career, textbooks could teach an important lesson: it’s possible to overcome one’s own prejudices.
In this section, Loewen shows how history textbooks present an oversimplified, one-dimensional view of complex historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln. As Loewen will continue to argue in the following chapter, Lincoln was an immensely complex thinker whose ideas on race and racism changed enormously over the course of his career as a politician. By simplifying Lincoln’s career and beliefs, textbooks convey the false idea that Lincoln was a pragmatist who didn’t spend a considerable amount of time thinking about race at all. More implicitly, Loewen argues, textbooks hide the idea that it’s possible to overcome one’s own racism, and portray racism as a deeply ingrained, unchangeable feeling (as well as one limited to villainous figures).
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Republicanism emerged as the dominant political party and imposed a series of racially egalitarian policies, known as Reconstruction, in the Southern states. There is still a myth that Reconstruction was a chaotic period in Southern history, in which newly elected or appointed black leaders “reigned corruptly,” and thus had to be controlled by their former masters. The reality is that blacks never “reigned” during Reconstruction—the vast majority of elected officials remained white during this era. It is tragic that so many—including African Americans—believe the myths about Reconstruction, since such myths perpetuate the lie that blacks can’t govern themselves and “need” whites to rule them.
History textbooks offer the biased interpretation that Reconstruction was a failure because newly appointed black leaders didn’t know how to take care of themselves or their new constituents. The implicit message of the textbooks’ interpretation is that African Americans need white leaders to “take care of them”—they’re incapable of governing themselves.
Admittedly, contemporary history textbooks offer a more nuanced account of Reconstruction than their predecessors half a century ago. However, even these new textbooks largely ignore the major problem with Reconstruction: white violence against black people. In some parts of the South, for instance, white lynch mobs killed an average of one black person per day. White supremacists also sabotaged black schools and burned down schoolhouses for black children. Textbooks miss a key point about why Reconstruction failed: the problem wasn’t that black people didn’t know how to take care of themselves, but rather than white supremacists refused to be integrated into the new, post-slavery society.
As before, Loewen is quick to admit that textbooks, for all their problems, are at least improving in the way they depict Reconstruction. However, Loewen argues, textbooks still omit a realistic account of the intimidation, harassment, and terrorism that African Americans faced during the Reconstruction era, instead suggesting that African Americans had “all the power” and didn’t know what to do with it—a condescending, racist notion that simply isn’t supported by the facts.
By the 1890s, Reconstruction was largely broken: in the Southern states, politicians instituted policies that segregated black and white people, and the Supreme Court upheld the states’ right to do so in Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1890s were, in many ways, the low point of (post-slavery) black life in America: black people were bullied, harassed, and in some cases murdered, and they had few laws or rights they could cite to protect themselves. Minstrel shows, in which black people were caricatured, became hugely popular in the 1890s, and the Ku Klux Klan’s membership boomed. One of the most glaring issues with history textbooks is that they largely omit any discussion of the late 19th century as the nadir (lowest point) of African American life—not just in the South, but throughout the United States.
History textbooks tend to focus their analysis of African American history around two eras—the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. Few history textbooks give a thorough account of black life in the 1890s, even though this era arguably represents the collective low-point for African Americans. During the 1890s, African Americans’ quality of life had regressed from where it was following the Civil War—they weren’t slaves, but couldn’t enjoy many of the rights that they’d been promised (the right to vote, to own property, etc.).
It is undeniable that race relations in the U.S. have improved in the last half century. But there continue to be massive racial disparities: there is a large income gap between the average white family and the average black family. As a group, black people live shorter lives, do worse on SAT tests, are more likely to be arrested, and have more health problems than white people. Perhaps even worse, there are many who believe, or secretly suspect, that these statistics reflect black people’s innate inferiority. The best way for people to understand the obstacles that African Americans have faced, and continue to face, is to learn the uncensored, disturbing, facts of history.
Loewen closes with a poignant example of how Americans’ ignorance of history colors their view of world. Without an understanding of the obstacles that black people have faced throughout American history, 21st century white people might be tempted to believe that African Americans really are inferior to white people. The achievement gap between black and white families, however, is the result of all the historical forces that most textbooks neglect to discuss.