For Afro-Americans, learning our history means embracing rage. But majority run elementary and secondary institutions don’t acknowledge that, and there’s no reason to think they ever will. If we’re to consistently view ourselves from an early age as the crucial, thriving American culture that we’ve become, as opposed ingesting the mosaic of negative attributes tied to skin color that the majority has spent the bulk of our history labeling us, we must develop the means to teach our young our own history outside of public schools and public institutions inevitably in thrall to white racial framing. It must be a conversation among ourselves and our youth, as befits a distinct culture, historically maligned.
Such instruction should start young, and yes, it will—and must—elicit rage, beginning with students’ introduction to American history, beginning with the very founding of this nation.
To learn the history of the United States from an Afro-American perspective is to be simultaneously repulsed by the hypocrisy of its Founders, even as you admire the estimable sentiments they had the vision to articulate, but neither the character nor the integrity to fulfill. To learn American history from our own point of view is to see this nation burst from the womb committing original sins that it would spend the rest of its history grappling with. To this day, 200 years after the drafting of a Constitution that enshrined black enslavement into the nation’s DNA, and 150 years after a bloody Civil War waged to maintain slavery, the nation remains riven along those original north/south battle lines. In a New York Times piece on the anniversary of the surrender of confederate forces at Appomattox, history professor Gregory Downs wrote, “Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South ‘surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.’”
To view American history through our lens is to understand the proportion of this nation’s wealth that grew from our unpaid labors. The book, “Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture” from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture provides a succinct catalog of slave labor’s prominence in the United States economy. “Each plantation economy was part of a larger national and international political economy,” in that the American financial and shipping industries were dependent upon monies earned from the cotton slaves grew, as were the British and American textile industries.
Learning American history from an Afro-American perspective is to understand how the Constitution granted slaveholders permanent electoral benefit from enslaving us. The framers of that document feared that southern states would shun the union unless slavery was not only allowed, but allowed to tip the balance of power in favor of its practice and preservation. The framers of the Constitution acquiesced, trading our bodies for their Union.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln was willing to sacrifice our lives and liberty to the cause of preserving the United States. In his letter to editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Again, our lives and bodies were the price Lincoln was willing to pay for the preservation of the United States. Now, ask yourselves whose bodies would you sacrifice for this nation? Whom would you enslave to keep her? To preserve the United States, would you satisfy the desires of powerful men to rape women at will? To preserve the United States, would you satisfy a majority desire to reduce people to unpaid servitude, relegate them to labor camps, or treat them as commodities that some could buy and sell like dogs? What moral outrage would be so great that you would say to yourself that the cost is not worth paying—that doing so would tear the very soul from the country that you claim to shield?
Such self-taught history would inevitably evoke pride—and rage. To see people like yourself violated in every way—it is repugnant. The mainstream (too often with our willing consent) has worked to deny us that inevitable, fundamentally human response. ‘You must not be angry,’ we’re told, ‘for then you’ll be reviled as the “angry black” man or woman, and you, as a lesser being, are not allowed that level of humanity.’ To the majority, we are bound by invisible shackles of Christian forgiveness with which they never bind themselves.
What becomes of rage subsumed? It turns inwards. We must teach each other that rage is an integral part of learning your Afro-American history. And we must teach each other how to use that rage—how to transform it into drive, knowledge, accomplishment, and a clear-eyed view of the country in which we live, which is not now, has never been, and shows no signs of soon becoming “colorblind” or “post-racial.” We must nurture and focus that rage so that we never fall to complacency. If nothing else, the age of Trump should have taught us that.
All of America’s history is ours to tell, for we are her through-line. Yet we rely on majority institutions that have historically reviled us—that deny us our rage—to tell our children who they should be. Black history without rage is not black history. It is white supremacy in pedagogical robes. We must do better, and that can only happen when we take control of our historical narrative and teach it ourselves from one generation to the next.