In Frederick Douglass’ landmark 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” he exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of American democracy in the antebellum period. Douglass addressed descendants of white American colonists in Rochester, New York—colonists who had declared independence from the oppression of British rule only to construct a new world predicated on the enslavement of other human beings. He galvanized the audience to examine these contradictions in the wake of a legal decision that would seal the fates of many thousands of enslaved Africans for over a decade.
A governor is revealed to have dressed up in blackface (at least once); an attorney general is shown to have done it, too; a senator is exposed as having edited a yearbook full of racist images and language; a team at Gucci apologizes for creating a balaclava sweater that evokes blackface.
On December 15, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—known as the Bill of Rights—were ratified. Designed to spell out limits to the federal government’s power and to protect the individual liberties of Americans, these amendments include many of the hallmarks of the country’s democratic ideals: freedom of speech, the press, and religion; and the protection against being punished by the government without due process of law.
Up until late last May, the bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was featured prominently in the center of Lee Circle in New Orleans, Louisiana. Now, the nearly 60-foot column it rested upon is bare and empty after the city removed the last of its Confederate era monuments. Sparked by Mayor Mitch Landrieu after the 2015 massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, the effort to remove these monuments has ignited emotionally charged responses and debates all across the country: Are we erasing the past by removing them? Or are we upholding legacies of racism and discrimination by keeping them?
A few years ago, a book came into my possession that has been tossed around in my family like a hot potato for several generations.
Entitled, Religion and Slavery: A Vindication of Southern Churches, the book's author was James McNeilly, a Presbyterian minister and Confederate veteran from Nashville, Tennessee. Inside the front cover is an inscription from the author to my great-great-great-grandmother.
"To Corinne Lawrence: A tried and true friend of many years—and a devoted lover of the Old South, which I have tried to vindicate."
As the first black president, Barack Obama's legacy will always include issues of race. At his farewell speech he acknowledged this: "After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” His presidency reveals the longstanding myth that American history has always been on a steady, progressive path towards embracing equality for all.
This Friday, the United States will inaugurate its 45th president, Donald Trump. The tensions and divisions that were unearthed by the 2016 presidential campaign will not be put to rest once President Barack Obama transitions power to this new administration. Instead, they will require active, thoughtful, and responsible participation of citizens to work through together; our responsibilities as citizens do not end at the voting booth. This inauguration is an appropriate time to reflect and renew our engagement as committed participants in a healthy democracy. As we take stock in our own role in this, how do we also help students make sense of these divisions and assess the strength of democracy and civil society?
Before the US presidential election, Eric Liu wrote in a recent article in the Atlantic, “Whatever the outcome on Election Day, more than 40 percent of American voters will feel despondent, disgusted, and betrayed.” As we face this reality together, we have a chance to learn from the pivotal dilemmas and choices of our nation’s past as we pick up the pieces from the exhausting 2016 election cycle. We can look to the aftermath of the Civil War—another period of deep division within the US—to better understand how we got to this current divisive moment filled with vitriolic rhetoric.
One hundred and fifty years ago, two massacres in 1866 – one in Memphis and one in New Orleans – galvanized national opposition to the Reconstruction policies that President Andrew Johnson enacted. These policies offered almost no protection to newly freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War.
How can confronting challenging historical moments like these become a step toward truth and reconciliation around issues of race that we face today? First, we need to understand the history behind them.
As a teacher, I talk to my students about expectations a lot. My expectations for them and their expectations for themselves. I tell them it is my professional responsibility and mission to raise their expectations. I want them to think deeper and more creatively. I want them to understand and not memorize. I want them to realize the human impact of history and their role in our collective tomorrow.