Sugarcoating American History

On a visit to Berlin last year, my husband and I found ourselves sitting on a streetcar next to another American, identified by his University of Memphis T-shirt. As fellow tourists do, we struck up a conversation.

How long had he been there? A few days. What had he enjoyed most in that time? Not enjoyed, exactly, but he had been most affected by a visit to one of the death camps where the Nazis had murdered thousands of Jews, Roma, socialists, communists, homosexuals, and anyone else the Nazis deemed inferior or a political threat. "The tour guides at the camp were impressive," he said. "They don't sugarcoat anything."

I started to say, "They can't afford to." I was thinking about the colossal responsibility Germans have to ensure that their Nazi history never repeats itself and the deliberate self-reflection they have undertaken in the decades since World War II. But as I looked at the young African-American man in front of me, the words died in my throat.

All I could think was, "We can't afford to either -- but we sugarcoat everything."

That is to say that we in the United States have allowed our history to become so coated in cotton candy that it is difficult for some Americans to discern its true outlines; as a result we continue to suffer from its baleful effects.

I suspect he was thinking something along the same lines, but we were strangers on a streetcar ride, too short a time to tease out each other's thoughts.

As an African American in Memphis, he had likely benefited from stories of the state-sponsored terror that enslaved and oppressed his forbears and continues to influence the present in many ways, either subtle or blatant.

Certainly those stories are part of the tradition of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Founded in defiant rejection of the myth of racial inferiority, part of its legacy is to remember, honor, and learn from the past.

But many Americans who are not of African descent know little of our nation's history of systematic lynchings, forced resettlements, segregation, redlining, and overt efforts to keep African Americans from being educated.

In fact, the amount of time schools devote to history has been shrinking for decades, which might explain why only 18 percent of the eight graders who were sampled for the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress could be considered proficient in history. To give one example, only 27 percent were able to correctly answer the question "Describe one way African Americans participated in the military on the Union side during the Civil War."

This should not be a hard question, since by the end of the war 179,000 African-American soldiers together accounted for about 10 percent of the Union Army, with another 19,000 serving in the Navy. But even that fact has been obscured by those who have tried to paint the Civil War as something other than a war fought to retain the right to enslave African Americans, and who characterize African Americans as something other than active participants in the struggle for their own freedom.

In fact, as recently as 2010, Virginia adopted a fourth-grade textbook that stated that thousands of African Americans fought on the side of the Confederacy. Shocked historians were able to get that book removed, but, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson of Princeton University told the Washington Post, "Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery."

Discomfort with history means that for the most part we as a country have allowed clouds of spun sugar to wrap around ugly truths. The young man steeped in racist ideology who murdered nine people in Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last week has forced the nation to confront that complacence.

In one of the many memorial services to those slain in South Carolina last week, an A.M.E. pastor in Washington, D.C., said that the shooting could not be lain solely at the feet of the young man responsible. It was the result, he said, of the fact that too many white Americans had not "reckoned with the past."

It is past time to reckon with the past. We in this country need to have a conversation not only about who we are and who we were but about who we want to be.

If any good can be constituted from the South Carolina murders, it will be that they have sparked that conversation. The people of all heritages all over the country who have gone to memorial services for the victims of the Mother Emmanuel shooting have made a start. The South Carolina politicians who have come together to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds made another start.

But that should not be the end.

Like Berliners, we, too, need to take an unflinching look at our history.

We need to learn it, teach it, and use it to make wise choices for the future.