One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration. When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white. He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do. We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.
As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment. Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass. For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it. I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another.
Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear. I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history. Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community. Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history. In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign".
The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story. While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable. As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable. A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted. And all of this took place in a slave society. I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it. Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery. You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga.
There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students. They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms. I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year. As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off. I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt. The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past. If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom.