July 10, 2015

Texas to collectively forget about much of Civil War, U.S. history


public domain

The Texas state flag. (via Wikimedia)

Jelani Cobb, in his brilliant take in last week’s New Yorker on the post-Charleston backlash against the Confederate flag, put the oblivious narrative used by the flag’s supporters within the greater context of southern exceptionalism, identifying the flag as a politically useful form of culpable cultural denial. Taking “heritage not hate” bumper sticker politics to task, he writes: “The great sleight of hand is the notion that these things were mutually exclusive…[The South] not only fought tenaciously for the right to own human beings; it did so unsuccessfully. Neither of these facts can be easily accepted, but only one of them can be easily denied.”

As a leading professor of African-American studies, Cobb knows something about this constant rewriting and refiguring of historical symbols to reflect the reflective ways a culture wants to view itself.

Only a week after Cobb’s piece hit newsstands, the new Texas State Board of Education-approved social studies textbooks were revealed by The Washington Post to no longer give very much mention to the whole slavery aspect of the Civil War — along with, for reasons that surely are surely not racism: the history of lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws or even very much of the whole century or so of segregation. For many, these omissions ring as particularly miffing — considering that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are at least five chapters of the Ku Klux Klan still actively operating in Texas.

The textbooks come in response to a vote five years ago by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education finding that, in the words of Don McLeroy, one of the Board leaders —  “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” Efforts by another Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, however, to include more Latino historical figures in these textbooks were handily rejected, leading her to storm out of a Board meeting proclaiming “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist […] They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

While The New York Times reported that no historians, sociologists or economists were consulted in these Board meetings, some members of the Board’s conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics. In lieu of teaching students about the two centuries of slavery and segregation in United States history, a plank was added to social studies guidelines providing for instruction on “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

The new textbooks will be in the hands of five million Texas public school students next month.