In Walter Benjamin's famous and famously difficult essay The Concept of History, said to be his last full work before he committed suicide in the second year of the war, the Jewish German philosopher wrote: 'There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.' Next to being an expression of deep historical insight, it reflected also his personal experience of seeing high Judeo-Christian European culture of which he was a prominent representative, trampled by the vulgar and lethal nationalist culture of the Nazi's.
After Benjamin it is hard to suppress thoughts about the dark side of cultural or artistic success. As a Dutchman by birth, I always saw behind our Golden Age the ruthless colonialism and the slave trade that helped to create Holland's embarrassing wealth. I was taken aback when the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum at the turn of century in their 200th anniversary celebration show fully focused on the Glory of the Golden Age, as was the title of the exhibition. And after moving to New York The American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Identities rooms in the Brooklyn Museum, made me cringe. Any profound confrontation with the culture of those who were wiped out or chased away to use their lands and those who were enslaved to use their bodies is missing. America means white America? Native Americans and Africans didn't have culture? Or did they have a lesser culture, not worthy to show?
I became even more aware of Benjamin's dictum when my black daughter was confronted with American history in elementary school. This year in fourth grade of her majority white independent school in Brooklyn she was subjected to what seems to be a nation-wide American tradition: the colonial fair. In my daughter's case it was disguised as 'The Brooklyn 1774 Living Museum'. I protested and wrote against this take on history, which makes the European experience in America the main dish and leave non-European experiences on the side. To no avail. My daughter, unbeknownst of my agitation behind the scenes, was dressed up for a skit in the white people's clothes we meekly bought online. She played a white character where in real 18th century life she might have owned slaves. It was painful for me to see her playing her role, but I was impressed by her effort to become the person, who she never could have been in those days, an effort just two or three other kids were forced to make. Did that affect her? I don't know. Later that fall a sleep away school camp was devoted to learn about the jobs, trades and occupations, about the culture of the colonists. It was the best week of here life, she told me, when she stumbled happy as a clam out of the bus, which brought the kids home.
In the curriculum was of course talk about slaves and Native Americans, but I don't think the kids were taught that the plight of the victims was the dark reverse of the white American colonial experience and that the origins of some kids in their class were rooted in that barbaric counterpart.
This spring immigration is the history subject of fourth grade, as it is in most other schools in the US. I know that many understand our country as one formed through immigration. It is regarded as a positive source of our culture, which adds to the communal narrative that binds the US together: we are all of us in this together, whoever we are and wherever we are from. But that narrative is false for those who lived here before the Europeans conquered these lands, and false for those who were captured in Africa, were trafficked like animals to the colonies and forced to work here under a regime of white terror.
I understand that immigration is a tough subject to honestly teach to 9 and 10 year olds. And the school of my daughter really tried, but didn't figure it out the right way. In an assignment the kids had to interview family members and friends how they or their forbears ended up in the US. The examples in the worksheet were however only about family and not about friends. The friends seemed a diversity afterthought, for kids with unusual families, like ours.
The questions the children had to address with their interviewees were given in shorthand: "Homeland" or location before coming to the US; Their names and how they are related to you; Time Period of Immigration or Migration; Reason(s) for Immigration or Migration. What was my daughter, adopted by two white men from Holland with a mother and four siblings in South Carolina, to answer? Did she have to give in her answers preference to her genetically unrelated adoptive parents (which would be unreal) over her mom? And what would be the answer if she would ask her African American mother? Would she have to write down: We know we are from Africa, but we don't know from what area or what tribe? Our names were lost in the Middle Passage and we carry the last names our slavers gave us? We don't know when we came here but it has to be some day between summer 1619 and autumn 1859? We came here to become slaves?
My daughter was not able to do her homework and went depressed to school the next day. And got special attention from her kind and understanding teacher.
American history is like any other nation's history, exciting and sometimes inspiring. It is at the same time horrible and barbaric. There is even in fourth grade no hiding for that, if your class is not fully white. Many educators suggest that the dark side of history is too hard to swallow at this age. That might be right on a developmental level, but there is no doubt that in Kindergarten an African American, a Native American or a Jewish child for that matter, is already aware of what is done to her or his people. It doesn't feel right that the burden to know the horrors is carried by the descendents of the victims and that the descendents of the perpetrators are shielded from them.
Since our classes are more and more filled with kids who represent people from all of the diversity of the US, we have to find a way to teach history that is real for all of them. And real for all of us. As a parent of a child in an old private institution, which originated in and still exudes an all white culture, I would wish we would start the conversation about teaching history in the safe privileged spaces these schools are. I am sure American history will in the end be All American history. I am sure my daughter will love it. And will be able to do her homework.