Invisibility of Racism
excerpted from the book
Lies My Teacher Told Me
Everything Your American
History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Touchstone Books, 1995, paper
Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding
Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy,
or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained?
Is it necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit
and debase its victims in order to justify its history?
The Europeans were able to conquer America
not because of their military genius, or their religious motivation,
or their ambition, or their greed. They conquered it by waging
unpremeditated biological warfare.
The scarcity of disease in the Americas was also partly attributable
to the basic hygiene practiced by the region's inhabitants. Residents
of northern Europe and England rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy,
and rarely removed all of their clothing at one time, believing
it immodest. The Pilgrims smelled bad to the Indians. Squanto
"tried, without success, to teach them to bathe," according
to Feenie Ziner, his biographer.
For all these reasons, the inhabitants
of North and South America (like Australian aborigines and the
peoples of the far-flung Pacific islands) were "a remarkably
healthy race" before Columbus. Ironically, their very health
proved their undoing, for they had built up no resistance, genetically
or through childhood diseases, to the microbes that Europeans
and Africans would bring to them.
In 1617, just before the Pilgrims landed,
the process started in southern New England. For decades, British
and French fishermen had fished off the Massachusetts coast. After
filling their hulls with cod, they would go ashore to lay in firewood
and fresh water and perhaps capture a few Indians to sell into
slavery in Europe. It is likely that these fishermen transmitted
some illness to the people they met. The plague that ensued made
the Black Death pale by comparison. Some historians think the
disease was the bubonic plague; others suggest that it was viral
hepatitis, smallpox, chicken pox, or influenza.
Within three years the plague wiped out
between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal
New England. The Indian societies lay devastated. Only "the
twentieth person is scarce left alive," wrote Robert Cushman,
a British eyewitness, recording a death rate unknown in all previous
human experience. Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors
abandoned their villages and fled, often to a neighboring tribe.
Because they carried the infestation with them, Indians died who
had never encountered a white person. Howard Simpson describes
what the Pilgrims saw: "Villages lay in ruins because there
was no one to tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls
and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was
left to bury them."
During the next fifteen years, additional
epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck
repeatedly. European Americans also contracted smallpox and the
other maladies, to be sure, but they usually recovered, including,
in a later century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington."
Native Americans usually died. The impact of the epidemics on
the two cultures was profound. The English Separatists, already
seeing their lives as part of a divinely inspired morality play,
found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop,
governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "miraculous."
In 1634 he wrote to a friend in England: "But for the natives
in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space
the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which
still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our
title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in
all not 50, have put themselves under our protection ', God the
Original Real Estate Agent!
Many Indians likewise inferred that their
god had abandoned them. Robert Cushman reported that "those
that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance
is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted." After
a smallpox epidemic the Cherokee "despaired so much that
they lost confidence in their gods and the priests destroyed the
sacred objects of the tribe." 25 After all, neither Indians
nor Pilgrims had access to the germ theory of disease. Indian
healers could supply no cure; their medicines and herbs offered
no relief. Their religion provided no explanation. That of the
whites did. Like the Europeans three centuries before them, many
Indians surrendered to alcohol, converted to Christianity, or
simply killed themselves.
These epidemics probably constituted the
most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century.
Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years
in New England, would face no real Indian challenge.
The very death rates that some historians and geographers now
find I hard to believe, the Pilgrims knew to be true. For example,
William Bradford described how the Dutch, rivals of Plymouth,
traveled to an Indian village in Connecticut to trade. "But
their enterprise failed, for it pleased God to afflict these Indians
with such a deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them
died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of burial
. . ." This is precisely the 95 percent mortality that McEvedy
rejected. On the opposite coast, the Native population of California
sank from 300,000 in 1769 (by which time it had already been cut
in half by various Spanish-borne diseases) to 30,000 a century
later, owing mainly to the gold rush, which brought "disease,
starvation, homicide, and a declining birthrate."
For a century after Catlin, historians
and anthropologists "overlooked" the evidence offered
by the Pilgrims and other early chroniclers. Beginning with P.
M. Ashburn in 1947, however, research has established more accurate
estimates based on careful continent-wide compilations of small-scale
studies of first contact and on evidence of early plagues. Most
current estimates of the precontact population of the United States
and Canada range from ten to twenty million.
After contact with Europeans and Africans, Indian societies changed
rapidly. Native Americans took into their cultures not only guns,
blankets, and kettles, but also new foods, ways of building houses,
and ideas from Christianity. Most American history textbooks tell
about the changes in only one group, the Plains Indians. Eight
of the twelve textbooks I surveyed mention the rapid efflorescence
of this colorful culture after the Spaniards introduced the horse
to the American West. It is an exhilarating example of syncretism-blending
elements of two different cultures to create something new.
The transformation in the Plains cultures,
however, was only the tip of the cultural-change iceberg. An even
more profound metamorphosis occurred as Europeans linked Native
peoples to the developing world economy. Yet textbooks make no
mention of this process, despite the fact that it continues to
affect formerly independent cultures in the last half of our century.
In the early 1970s, for example, Lapps in Norway replaced their
sled dogs with snowmobiles, only to find themselves vulnerable
to Arab oil embargoes. The process seems inevitable, hence perhaps
is neither to be praised nor decried-but it should not be ignored,
because it is crucial to understanding how Europeans took over
In Atlantic North America, members of
Indian nations possessed a variety of sophisticated skills, from
the ability to weave watertight baskets to an understanding of
how certain plants can be used to reduce pain. At first, Native
Americans traded corn, beaver, fish, sassafras, and other goods
with the French, Dutch, and British, in return for axes, blankets,
cloth, beads, and kettles. Soon, however, Europeans persuaded
Natives to specialize in the fur and slave trades. Native Americans
were better hunters and trappers than Europeans, and with the
guns the Europeans sold them, they became better still. Other
Native skills began to atrophy. Why spend hours making a watertight
basket when in one-tenth the time you could trap enough beavers
to trade for a kettle? Even agriculture, which the Native Americans
had shown to the Europeans, declined, because it became easier
to trade for food than to grow it. Everyone acted in rational
self-interest in joining such a system-that is, Native Americans
were not mere victims-because everyone's standard of living improved,
at least in theory.
Some of the rapid changes in eastern Indian
societies exemplify syncretism. When the Iroquois combined European
guns and Native American tactics to smash the Hurons, they controlled
their own culture and chose which elements of European culture
to incorporate, which to modify, which to ignore. Native Americans
learned how to repair guns, cast bullets, build stronger forts,
and fight to annihilate. Native Americans also became well known
as linguists, often speaking two European languages (French, English,
Dutch, or Spanish) and at least two Indian languages. British
colonists sometimes used Natives as interpreters when dealing
with the Spanish or French, not just with other Native American
These developments were not all matters
of happy economics and voluntary syncretic cultural transformation,
however. Natives were operating under a military and cultural
threat, and they knew it. They quickly deduced that European guns
were more efficient than their bows and arrows. Europeans soon
realized that trade goods could be used to win and maintain political
alliances with Indian nations. To deal with the new threat and
because whites "demanded institutions reflective of their
own with which to relate," many Native groups strengthened
their tribal governments. Chiefs acquired power they had never
had before. These governments often ruled unprecedentedly broad
areas, because the heightened warfare and the plagues had wiped
out smaller tribes or caused them to merge with larger ones for
protection. Large nations became ethnic melting pots, taking in
whites and blacks as well as other Indians. New confederations
and nations developed, such as the Creeks, Seminoles, and Lumbees.
The tribes also became more male-dominated, in imitation of Europeans
or because of the expanded importance of war skills in their cultures.
Tribes that were closest to the Europeans
got guns first, guns that could be trained on interior peoples
who had not yet acquired any. Suddenly some nations had a great
military advantage over others. The result was an escalation of
Indian warfare. Native nations had engaged in conflict before
Europeans came, of course. Tribes rarely fought to the finish,
however. Some tribes did not want to take over the lands belonging
to other nations, partly because each had its own sacred sites.
For a nation to exterminate its neighbors was difficult anyway,
since all enjoyed the same level of military technology. Now all
this changed. European powers deliberately increased Indian warfare
by playing one nation off against another. The Spanish, for example,
used a divide-and conquer strategy to defeat the Aztecs in Mexico.
In Scotland and Ireland, the English had played tribes against
one another to extend British rule. Now they did the same in North
For many tribes the motive for the increased
combat was the enslavement of other Indians to sell to the Europeans
for more guns and kettles. As northern tribes specialized in fur,
certain southern tribes specialized in people. Some Native Americans
had enslaved each other long before Europeans arrived. Now Europeans
vastly expanded Indian slavery. Colonists in South Carolina paid
nearby Indian nations in guns, ammunition, and other goods, which
enabled them to enslave interior nations as far west as Arkansas.
The Europeans' enslavement of Native Americans has a long history.
Textbooks used in elementary schools tell that Ponce de Leon went
to Florida to seek the mythical fountain of youth; they do not
say that his main business was to capture slaves for Hispaniola.
In New England, Indian slavery led directly to African slavery:
the first blacks imported there, in 1638, were brought from the
West Indies to be exchanged for Native Americans from Connecticut.
On the eve of the New York City slave rebellion of 1712, in which
Native and African slaves united, about one resident in four was
enslaved and one slave in four was Indian. A 1730 census of South
Kingston, Rhode Island, showed 935 whites, 333 African slaves,
and 223 Native American slaves.
The center of Native American slavery,
like African American slavery, was South Carolina. Its population
in 1708 included 3,960 free whites, 4,100 African slaves, 1,400
Indian slaves, and 120 indentured servants, presumably white.
These numbers do not reflect the magnitude of Native slavery,
however, because they omit the export trade. From Carolina, as
from New England, colonists sent Indian slaves (who might escape)
to the West Indies (where they could never escape), in exchange
for black slaves. Charleston shipped more than 10,000 Natives
in chains to the West Indies in one year! Further west, so many
Pawnee Indians were sold to whites that Pawnee became the name
applied in the plains to all slaves, whether they were of Indian
or African origin. On the West Coast, Pierson Reading, a manager
of John Sutter's huge grant of Indian land in central California,
extolled the easy life he led in 1844: "The Indians of California
make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the south."
In the Southwest, whites enslaved Navajos and Apaches right up
to the middle of the Civil War.
Intensified warfare and the slave trade
rendered stable settlements no longer safe, helping to deagriculturize
Native Americans. To avoid being targets for capture, Indians
abandoned their cornfields and their villages and began to live
in smaller settlements from which they could more easily escape
to the woods. Ultimately, they had to trade with Europeans even
for food. As Europeans learned from Natives what to grow and how
to grow it, they became less dependent upon Indians and Indian
technology, while Indians became more dependent upon Europeans
and European technology. Thus what worked for the Native Americans
in the short run worked against them in the long. In the long
run, it was Indians who were enslaved, Indians who died, Indian
technology that was lost, Indian cultures that fell apart. By
the time the pitiful remnant of the Massachuset tribe converted
to Christianity and joined the Puritans' "praying Indian
towns," they did so in response to an invading culture that
told them their religion was wrong and Christianity was right.
This process exemplifies what anthropologists call cultural imperialism.
Even the proud Plains Indians, whose syncretic culture combined
horses and guns from the Spanish with Native art, religion, and
hunting styles, showed the effects of cultural imperialism: the
Sioux word for white man, wasichu, meant "one who has everything
African Americans frequently fled to Indian societies to escape
bondage. What did whites find so alluring? According to Benjamin
Franklin, "All their government is by Counsel of the Sages.
There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel
Obedience, or inflict Punishment." Probably foremost, the
lack of hierarchy in the Native societies in the eastern United
States attracted the admiration of European observers. Frontiersmen
were taken with the extent to which Native Americans enjoyed freedom
as individuals. Women were also accorded more status and power
in most Native societies than in white societies of the time,
which white women noted with envy in captivity narratives. Although
leadership was substantially hereditary in some nations, most
Indian societies north of Mexico were much more democratic than
Spain, France, or even England in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. "There is not a Man in the Ministry of the Five
Nations, who has gain'd his Office, otherwise than by Merit,"
waxed Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York in 1727. "Their
Authority is only the Esteem of the People, and ceases the Moment
that Esteem is lost." Colden applied to the Iroquois terms
redolent of "the natural rights of mankind": "Here
we see the natural Origin of all Power and Authority among a free
Indeed, Native American ideas may be partly
responsible for our democratic institutions. We have seen how
Native ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality found their
way to Europe to influence social philosophers such as Thomas
More, Locke, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. These European
thinkers then influenced Americans such as Franklin, Jefferson,
and Madison. In recent years historians have debated whether Indian
ideas may also have influenced our democracy more directly. Through
150 years of colonial contact, the Iroquois League stood before
the colonies as an object lesson in how to govern a large domain
democratically. The terms used by Lt. Gov. Colden find an echo
in our Declaration of Independence fifty years later.
In the 1740s the Iroquois wearied of dealing
with several often bickering English colonies and suggested that
the colonies form a union similar to the league. In 1754 Benjamin
Franklin, who had spent much time among the Iroquois observing
their deliberations, pleaded with colonial leaders to consider
the Albany Plan of Union: "It would be a strange thing if
six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a
scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner
as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that
a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English
The colonies rejected the plan. But it
was a forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention
referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery. In 1775 Congress
formulated a speech to the Iroquois, signed by John Hancock, that
quoted Iroquois advice from 1744. "The Six Nations are a
wise people," Congress wrote, "let us harken to their
council and teach our children to follow it."
The struggle over racial slavery may be the predominant theme
in American history. Until the end of the nineteenth century,
cotton- planted, cultivated, harvested, and ginned by slaves-was
by far our most important export. Our graceful antebellum homes,
in the North as well as in the South, were built largely by slaves
or from profits derived from the slave and cotton trades. Black-white
relations became the central issue in the Civil War, which killed
almost as many Americans as died in all our other wars combined.
Black-white relations was the principal focus of Reconstruction
after the Civil War; America's failure to allow African Americans
equal rights led eventually to the struggle for civil rights a
The subject also pops up where we least
suspect it-at the Alamo, throughout the Seminole Wars, even in
the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri. Studs Terkel is right:
race is our "American obsession." Since those first
Africans and Spaniards landed on the Carolina shore in 1526, our
society has repeatedly been torn apart and sometimes bound together
by this issue of black-white relations.
Over the years white America has told
itself varying stories about the enslavement of blacks. In each
of the last two centuries America's most popular novel was set
in slavery-Uncle Toms Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Gone
with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The two books tell very different
stories: Uncle Toms Cabin presents slavery as an evil to be opposed,
while Gone with the Wind suggests that slavery was an ideal social
structure whose passing is to be lamented. Until the civil rights
movement, American history textbooks in this century pretty much
agreed with Mitchell.
Americans seem perpetually startled at slavery. Children are shocked
I to learn that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
Interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg say that many visitors are
surprised to learn that slavery existed there-in the heart of
plantation Virginia! Very few adults today realize that our society
has been slave much longer than it has been free. Even fewer know
that slavery was important in the North, too, until after the
Revolutionary War. The first colony to legalize slavery was not
Virginia but Massachusetts. In 1720, of New York City's population
of seven thousand, 1,600 were African Americans, most of them
slaves. Wall Street was the marketplace where owners could hire
out their slaves by the day or week.
Certainly the Founding Fathers never created one. "Popular
modern depictions of Washington and Jefferson are utterly at variance
with their lives as eighteenth-century slave-holding planters."
Textbooks play their part by minimizing slavery in the lives of
the founders ... authors cannot bear to reveal anything bad about
our heroes. Nevertheless almost half of the signers of the Declaration
of Independence were slaveowners.
In real life the Founding Fathers and
their wives wrestled with slavery Textbooks canonize Patrick Henry
for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Not
one tells us that eight months after delivering the speech he
ordered "diligent patrols" to keep Virginia slaves from
accepting the British offer of freedom to those who would join
their side. Henry wrestled with the contradiction, exclaiming,
"Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own
purchase!" Almost no one would today, because only two of
the twelve textbooks, Land of Promise and The American Adventure,
even mention the inconsistency. Henry's understanding of the discrepancy
between his words and his deeds never led him to act differently,
to his slaves' sorrow. Throughout the Revolutionary period he
added slaves to his holdings, and even at his death, unlike some
other Virginia planters, he freed not a one. Nevertheless Triumph
of the American Nation quotes Henry calling slavery "as repugnant
to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive
of liberty," without ever mentioning that he held slaves.
American Adventures devotes three whole pages to Henry, constructing
a fictitious melodrama in which his father worries, "How
would he ever earn a living?" Adventures then tells how Henry
failed at storekeeping, "tried to make a living by raising
tobacco," "started another store," "had three
children as well as a wife to support," "knew he had
to make a living in some way," "so he decided to become
a lawyer." The student who reads this chapter and later learns
that Henry grew wealthy from the work of scores of slaves has
a right to feel hoodwinked.
Even more embarrassing is the case of
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. American history textbooks use
several tactics to harmonize the contradiction between Jefferson's
assertion that everyone has an equal right to "Life, Liberty,
and the pursuit of Happiness" and his enslavement of 175
human beings at the time he wrote those words. Jefferson's slaveholding
affected almost everything he did, from his opposition to internal
improvements to his foreign policy. Nonetheless, half of our textbooks
never note that Jefferson owned slaves. Life and Liberty offers
a half-page minibiography of Jefferson, revealing that he was
"shy," "stammered," and "always worked
hard at what he did." Elsewhere Life contrasts Jefferson's
political beliefs with Alexander Hamilton's and supplies six paragraphs
about "Jeffersonian Changes" of Federalist policies,
noting that Jefferson refused to wear a wig, repealed a whiskey
tax, and walked rather than rode in his inaugural parade. Life
and Liberty says nothing about Jefferson and slavery, however.
American History offers six different illustrations of the man
for us to admire but makes no mention of his slaveholding. The
Challenge of Freedom mentions Jefferson on sixteen different pages
but never in the context of slavery.
Textbooks stress that Jefferson was a humane master, privately
tormented by slavery and opposed to its expansion, not the type
to destroy families by selling slaves. In truth, by 1820 Jefferson
has become an ardent advocate of the expansion of slavery to the
western territories. And he never let his ambivalence about slavery
affect his private life. Jefferson was an average master who had
his slaves whipped and sold into the Deep South as examples, to
induce other slaves to obey. By 1822, Jefferson owned 267 slaves.
During his long life, of hundreds of different slaves he owned,
he freed only three, and five more at his death -all blood relatives
Another textbook tactic to minimize Jefferson's
slaveholding is to admit it but emphasize that others did no better.
"Jefferson revealed himself as a man of his times,"
states Land of Promise. Well, what were those times? Certainly
most white Americans in the 1770s were racist. Race relations
were in flux, however, due to the Revolutionary War and to its
underlying ideology about the rights of mankind that Jefferson,
among others, did so much to spread. Five thousand black soldiers
fought alongside whites in the Continental Army, "with courage
and skill," according to Triumph of the American Nation.
In reality, of course, some fought "with courage and skill,"
like some white recruits, and some failed to fire their guns and
ran off, like some white recruits. But because these men fought
in integrated units for the most part and received equal pay,
their existence in itself helped decrease white racism.
Moreover, the American Revolution is one
of those moments in our history when the power of ideas made a
real difference. "In contending for the birthright of freedom,"
said a captain in the army, "we have learned to feel for
the bondage of others." Abigail Adams wrote her husband in
1774 to ask how we could "fight ourselves for what we are
daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right
to freedom as we have." The contradiction between his words
and his slaveowning embarrassed Patrick Henry, who offered only
a lame excuse-"I am drawn along by the general inconvenience
of living here without them"-and admitted, "I will not,
I cannot justify it." Other options were available to planters.
Some, including George Washington valued consistency more than
Henry or Jefferson and freed their slaves outright or at least
in their wills. Other slaveowners freed their male slaves to fight
in the colonial army, collecting a bounty for each one who enlisted.
In the first two decades after the Revolution, the number of free
blacks in Virginia soared tenfold, from 2,000 in 1780 to 20,000
in 1800. Most Northern states did away with slavery altogether.
Thus Thomas Jefferson lagged behind many whites of his times in
the actions he took with regard to slavery.
Manumission gradually flagged, however,
because most of the white Southerners who, like Jefferson, kept
their slaves, grew rich. Their neighbors thought well of them,
as people often do of those richer than themselves. To a degree
the ideology of the upper class became the ideology of the whole
society, and as the Revolution receded, that ideology increasingly
justified slavery. Jefferson himself spent much of his slave-earned
wealth on his mansion at Monticello and on books that he later
donated to the University of Virginia; these expenditures became
part of his hallowed patrimony, giving history yet another reason
to remember him kindly.
Other views are possible, however. In
1829, three years after Jefferson's death, David Walker, a black
Bostonian, warned members of his race that they should remember
Jefferson as their greatest enemy. "Mr. Jefferson's remarks
respecting us have sunk deep into the hearts of millions of whites,
and never will be removed this side of eternity." For the
next hundred years, the open white supremacy of the Democratic
Party, Jefferson's political legacy to the nation, would bear
out the truth of Walker's warning.
Textbooks are in good company: the Jefferson
Memorial, too, whitewashes its subject. On its marble walls a
carved panel proclaims Jefferson's boast, "I have sworn eternal
hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men,"
without ever mentioning his participation in racial slavery. Perhaps
asking a marble memorial to tell the truth is demanding too much.
Should history textbooks similarly be a shrine, however? Should
they encourage students to worship Jefferson? Or should they help
students understand him, wrestle with the problems he wrestled
with, grasp his accomplishments, and also acknowledge his failures?
The idealistic spark in our Revolution,
which caused Patrick Henry such verbal discomfort, at first made
the United States a proponent of democracy around the world. However,
slavery and its concomitant ideas, which legitimated hierarchy
and dominance, sapped our Revolutionary idealism. Most textbooks
never hint at this clash of ideas, let alone at its impact on
our foreign policy.
After the Revolution, many Americans expected
our example would inspire other peoples. It did. Our young nation
got its first chance to help in the 1790s, when Haiti revolted
against France. Whether a president owned slaves seems to have
determined his policy toward the second independent nation in
the hemisphere. George Washington did, so his administration loaned
hundreds of thousands of dollars to the French planters in Haiti
to help them suppress their slaves. John Adams did not, and his
administration gave considerable support to the Haitians. Jefferson's
presidency marked a general retreat from the idealism of the Revolution.
Like other slaveowners, Jefferson preferred a Napoleonic colony
to a black republic in the Caribbean. In 1801 he reversed U.S.
policy toward Haiti and secretly gave France the go-ahead to reconquer
the island. In so doing, the United States not only betrayed its
heritage, but also acted against its own self-interest. For if
France had indeed been able to retake Haiti, Napoleon would have
maintained his dream of an American empire. The United States
would have been hemmed in by France to its west, Britain to its
north, and Spain to its south. But planters in the United States
were scared by the Haitian Revolution. They thought it might inspire
slave revolts here (which it did). When Haiti won despite our
flip-flop, the United States would not even extend it diplomatic
recognition, lest its ambassador inflame our slaves "by exhibiting
in his own person an example of successful revolt," in the
words of a Georgia senator. Five of the twelve textbooks mention
how Haitian resistance led France to sell us its claim to Louisiana,
but none tells of our flip-flop. Indeed, no textbook ever makes
any connection between slavery and U.S. foreign policy.
Racial slavery also affected our policy
toward the next countries in the Americas to revolt, Spain's colonies.
Haiti's example inspired them to seek independence, and the Haitian
government gave Simon Bolivar direct aid. Our statesmen were ambivalent,
eager to help boot a European power out of the hemisphere but
worried by the racially mixed rebels doing the booting. Some planters
wanted our government to replace Spain as the colonial power,
especially in Cuba. Jefferson suggested annexing Cuba. Fifty years
later, diplomats in the Franklin Pierce administration signed
the Ostend Manifesto, which proposed that the United States buy
or take the island from Spain. Slaveowners, still obsessed with
Haiti as a role model, thus hoped to prevent Cuba's becoming a
second Haiti, with "flames [that might] extend to our own
neighboring shores," in the words of the Manifesto. In short,
slavery prompted the United States to have imperialist designs
on Latin America rather than visions of democratic liberation
for the region.
Slavery affected our foreign policy in
still other ways. The first requirement of a slave society is
secure borders. We do not like to think of the United States as
a police state, a nation like East Germany that people had to
escape from, but the slaveholding states were just that. Indeed,
after the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which declared "A
Negro had no rights a white man was bound to respect," thousands
of free African Americans realized they could not be safe even
in Northern states and fled to Canada, Mexico, and Haiti. Slaveholders
dominated our foreign policy until the Civil War. They were always
concerned about our Indian borders and made sure that treaties
with Native nations stipulated that Indians surrender all African
Americans and return any runaways.
The victors of the Civil War executed but one Confederate officeholder,
Henry Wirz, notorious commandant of Andersonville prison, while
the losers murdered hundreds of officeholders and other Unionists,
white and black. In Hinds County, Mississippi, alone, whites killed
an average of one African American a day, many of them servicemen,
during Confederate Reconstruction-the period from 1865 to 1867
when ex-Confederates ran the governments of most Southern states.
In Louisiana in the summer and fall of 1868, white Democrats killed
1,081 persons, mostly African Americans and white Republicans.
In one judicial district in North Carolina, a Republican judge
counted 700 beatings and 12 murders. Moreover, violence was only
the most visible component of a broader pattern of white resistance
to black progress.
Attacking education was an important element
of the white supremacists' program. "The opposition to Negro
education made itself felt everywhere in a combination not to
allow the freedmen any room or building in which a school might
be taught," said Gen. O. O. Howard, head of the Freedmen's
Bureau. "In 1865, 1866, and 1867 mobs of the baser classes
at intervals and in all parts of the South occasionally burned
school buildings and churches used as schools, flogged teachers
or drove them away, and in a number of instances murdered them."
Focusing on white racism is even more central to understanding
the period Rayford Logan called "the nadir of American race
relations": the years between 1890 and 1920, when African
Americans were again put back into second-class citizenship. During
this time white Americans, North and South, joined hands to restrict
black civil and economic rights. Perhaps because the period was
marked by such a discouraging increase in white racism, ten of
the twelve textbooks ignore the nadir. The finest coverage, in
American History, summarizes the aftermath of Reconstruction in
a section entitled "The Long Night Begins." "After
the Compromise of 1877 the white citizens of the North turned
their backs on the black citizens of the South. Gradually the
southern states broke their promise to treat blacks fairly. Step
by step they deprived them of the right to vote and reduced them
to the status of second-class citizens." American History
then spells out the techniques-restrictions on voting, segregation
in public places, and Iynchings-which southern whites used to
maintain white supremacy.
Triumph of the American Nation on the
other hand, sums up in these bland words: "Reconstruction
left many major problems unsolved and created new and equally
urgent problems. This was true even though many forces in the
North and the South continued working to reconcile the two sections."
These sentences are so vague as to be content-free. Frances Fitzgerald
used an earlier version of this passage to attack what she called
the "problems" approach to American history. "These
'problems' seem to crop up everywhere," she deadpanned. "History
in these texts is a mass of problems." Five hundred pages
later in Triumph, when the authors reach the civil rights movement,
race relations again becomes a "problem." The authors
make no connection between the failure of the United States to
guarantee black civil rights in 1877 and the need for a civil
rights movement a century later. Nothing ever causes anything.
Things just happen.
In fact, during Reconstruction and the
nadir, a battle raged for the soul of the Southern white racist
and in a way for that of the whole nation. There is a parallel
in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II, a battle
for the soul of the German people, a battle which Nazism lost
(we hope). But in the United States, as American History tells,
racism won. Between 1890 and 1907 every Southern and border state
"legally" disfranchised the vast majority of its African
American voters. Lynchings rose to an all-time high. In 1896 the
Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v Ferguson. No textbook
explains the rationale of segregation, which is crucial to understanding
its devastating effect on black and white psyches.
During the nadir, segregation increased everywhere. Jackie Robinson
was not the first black player in major league baseball. Blacks
had played in the major leagues in the nineteenth century, but
by 1889 whites had forced them out. In 1911 the Kentucky Derby
eliminated black jockeys after they won fifteen of the first twenty-eight
derbies. Particularly in the South, whites attacked the richest
and most successful African Americans, just as they had the most
acculturated Native Americans, so upward mobility offered no way
out for blacks but only made them more of a target. In the North
as well as in the South, African-Americans from skilled occupations
and even unskilled jobs such as postal carriers. Eventually our
system of segregation spread to South Africa, to Bermuda, and
even to European-controlled enclaves in China.
American popular culture evolved to rationalize
whites' retraction of civil and political rights from African
Americans. The Bronx Zoo exhibited an African behind bars, like
a gorilla. Theatrical productions of Uncle Toms Cabin played throughout
the nadir, but since the novel's indictment of slavery was no
longer congenial to an increasingly racist white society, rewrites
changed Uncle Tom from a martyr who gave his life to protect his
people into a sentimental dope who was loyal to kindly masters.
In the black community, Uncle Tom eventually came to mean an African
American without integrity who sells out his people's interests.
In the 1880s and 1890s, minstrel shows featuring bumbling, mislocuting
whites in blackface grew wildly popular from New England to California.
By presenting heavily caricatured images of African Americans
who were happy on the plantation and lost and incompetent off
it, these shows demeaned black ability. Minstrel songs such as
"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "Old Black Joe,"
and "My Old Kentucky Home" told whites that Harriet
Beecher Stowe got Uncle Tom's Cabin all wrong: blacks really liked
slavery. Second-class citizenship was appropriate for such a sorry
Textbooks abandoned their idealistic presentations
of Reconstruction in favor of the Confederate myth, for if blacks
were inferior, then the historical period in which they enjoyed
equal rights must have been dominated by wrong-thinking Americans.
Vaudeville continued the portrayal of silly, Iying, chicken-stealing
black idiots. So did early silent movies. Some movies made more
serious charges against African Americans: D. W. Grifffith's racist
epic Birth of a Nation showed them obsessed with interracial sex
and debased by corrupt white carpetbaggers.
In politics, the white electorate had
become so racist by 1892 that the Democratic candidate, Grover
Cleveland, won the White House partly by tarring Republicans with
their attempts to guarantee civil rights to African Americans,
thereby conjuring fears of "Negro domination" in the
Northern as well as Southern white mind. From the Civil War to
the end of the century, not a single Democrat in Congress, representing
the North or the South, ever voted in favor of any civil rights
legislation. The Supreme Court was worse: its segregationist decisions
from 1896 (Plessy) through 1927 (Rice v. Gong Lum, which barred
Chinese from white schools) told the nation that whites were the
master race. We have seen how Woodrow Wilson won the presidency
in 1912 and proceeded to segregate the federal government. Aided
by Birth of a Nation, which opened in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan rose
to its zenith, boasting over a million members. The KKK openly
dominated the state government of Indiana for a time, and it proudly
inducted Pres. Warren G. Harding as a member in a White House
ceremony. During the Wilson and Harding administrations, perhaps
one hundred race riots took place, more than in any other period
since Reconstruction. White mobs killed African Americans across
the United States. Some of these events, like the 1919 Chicago
riot, are well known. Others, such as the 1921 riot in Tulsa,
Oklahoma, in which whites dropped dynamite from airplanes onto
a black ghetto, killing more than 75 people and destroying more
than 1,100 homes, have completely vanished from our history books.
It is almost unimaginable how racist the
United States became during and just after the nadir. Mass attacks
by whites wiped out or terrorized black communities in the Florida
Keys, in Springfield, Illinois, and in the Arkansas Delta, and
were an implicit, ever-present threat to every black neighborhood
in the nation. Some small communities in the Midwest and West
became "sundown" towns, informally threatening African
Americans with death if they remained overnight. African Americans
were excluded from juries throughout the South and in many places
in the North, which usually meant they could forget about legal
redress even for obvious wrongs like assault, theft, or arson
by whites. Lynchings offer evidence of how defenseless blacks
were, for the defining characteristic of a lynching is that the
murder takes place in public, so everyone knows who did it, yet
the crime goes unpunished. During the nadir lynchings took place
as far north as Duluth. Once again, as Dred Scott had proclaimed
in 1857, "a Negro had no rights a white man was bound to
respect." Every time African Americans interacted with European
Americans, no matter how insignificant the contact, they had to
be aware of how they presented themselves, lest they give offense
by looking someone in the eye, forgetting to say "sir,"
or otherwise stepping out of "their place." Always,
the threat of overwhelming force lay just beneath the surface.
The nadir left African Americans in a
dilemma. An "exodus" to form new black communities in
the West did not lead to real freedom. Migration north led only
to segregated urban ghettoes. Concentrating on Booker T. Washington's
plan for economic improvement while foregoing civil and political
rights could not work, because economic gains could not be maintained
without civil and political rights. "Back to Africa"
was not practicable.
Many African Americans lost hope; family
instability and crime increased. This period of American life,
not slavery, marked the beginning of what some social scientists
have called the "tangle of pathology" in African American
society. Indeed, some historians date low black morale to even
later periods, such as the great migration to Northern cities
(1918-70), the Depression (1929-39), or changes in urban life
and occupational structure after World War II. Unfortunately,
no textbook discusses the changing levels of white racism or black
reaction in any of these periods. In any event this tangle was
the result, not the cause, of the segregation and discrimination
African Americans faced. Black jockeys and mail carriers were
shut out, not because they were inadequate, but because they succeeded.
My Teacher Told Me