Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things . . . And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?

E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)

At its most basic level, thinking historically requires the courage to see.

A few weeks ago the Southern Poverty Law Center released Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Based on surveys of high school seniors and social studies teachers as well as analyses of high school history textbooks, the report concludes “that our schools are failing to teach the hard history of African enslavement.”

See, for example, how many high school seniors understood these three key concepts regarding the history of slavery:

  • 32% understood that “slavery was an institution of power designed to create profit for the slaveholder and break the will of the enslaved, and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.”
  • 22% understood that “protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents [and] enslavers dominated the federal government, Supreme Court, and Senate from 1787 through 1860.”
  • 8% understood that “slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.”

This is not about high school seniors being ignorant. This is not about high school teachers failing to do their jobs (thankfully, teachers scored markedly higher on these questions, but they may find it uncomfortable or difficult to press these issues in the classroom). Instead, it is about a culture that does not want to acknowledge the realities and legacy of slavery and racism in American life.

Still, there are many of our fellow citizens who – when given the opportunity – are able and want to see the past and present for what it was and is. This was evident last Saturday at the Milan (OH) Public Library, where I (Bill) spoke on the Second Ku Klux Klan in Ohio in the 1920s. Here are just a few of the questions that came up in the Q/A period:

  • How did people justify owning other people as slaves?
  • Why do Americans seem much more knowledgeable and concerned about Holocaust in Europe than they are aware of the horrors of slavery here in America?
  • Does the US fear melanin more than other people? Are we simply more racist than other people?
  • How was lynching used politically, and what was the message that was being sent?
  • Why are so many people flying Confederate flags in my town and nearby rural areas?
  • Has the current administration emboldened white supremacists?

One woman lamented the fact that her daughter has been taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. As I pointed out, what is so ridiculous about this claim is that, at the time they were leaving the Union, southern leaders candidly and explicitly asserted that they were leaving the Union in order to preserve their “peculiar institution.” See, for example, South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina,” Mississippi’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina,”, and CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephen’s infamous “Corner Stone” speech.

That these statements are so obvious in linking slavery to secession make the point. To see the past, you have to be willing to see the past for all that it was. Sometimes it is beautiful. Sometimes it is hideous. You have to be willing to see.