Some of the history that we never got to learn

By Hannah Rajalingam

We’ve all learned the basics of American history in our grade school education: Native Americans, Columbus, slavery, colonial America, Boston Tea Party, independence, the Roaring ‘20s, World War I & II, etc. There was this general trust when we were younger that we were learning all we needed to know. Surely the history textbooks were telling us the truth, and nothing but. However, through not-so-extensive research, it becomes clear: History was written by the winners.

Recognizing this isn’t simple, as much of the history we read has been airbrushed. Textbooks gloss over the cruelties and atrocities white people committed by upholding the institution of slavery. We learn that yes, it was bad but it’s done now: nobody treats black people like that anymore. We don’t learn that slavery evolved into convict leasing and sharecropping, which turned into Jim Crow laws, which turned into the mass incarceration of minorities that we see today. We also don’t learn about the generational trauma that affects black people today. We don’t learn about how Europe’s violent colonization of Africa “ended.”  I never knew that for second-generation African Americans, their parents were probably the first to be born completely out of Jim Crow. It took 10 years of social studies for me to learn that the day that marked the “end” of Europe’s colonization of Africa was in 1994. I only now learned that since the first countries in Africa gained independence, world powers have been assassinating/ousting leaders they felt “threatened their interest.” In 2017, Britain ousted and killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which sparked a migration from Libya, a country once seen as one with the opportunities for many immigrants in Africa to better their lives. We must learn that the atrocities of American history aren’t in the past. They aren’t 200 years ago, or 60 years ago, or 50 years ago. They happen as we speak; the institutions and laws we’ve learned have been abolished or outlawed never disappeared. Instead, they camouflage themselves into institutions we are told to take pride in today.

The history of segregation we learned was just Black and white. As the story went, white people believed in separate but equal, but it wasn’t equal because all of the opportunities to better yourself and become successful were “whites only.” MLK stood up for Black people, Jim Crow ended, the end. We didn’t learn how Black people used their vast buying powers to support only Black-run businesses when 5th Avenue stores refused integration. We didn’t learn that MLK was on the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives list. The FBI did wiretaps on King that revealed he was cheating on his wife, wiretaps that were then used to collect as much evidence of his affair as possible, and then sent it to him in an anonymous letter that suggested King kill himself. We didn’t learn that the FBI believed MLK had “communist ties.” We didn’t learn that MLK became a target because “the FBI believed that he could become a ‘messiah’ who could unify black nationalists ‘should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism.’” Our history books never showed us the atrocities our government did to a man fighting for equality. We didn’t learn about the One Drop Rule, that forced anyone with suspected Black ancestry to be considered a person of color. We didn’t learn of the paper genocide during Jim Crow, which forced Native Americans living away from reservations of predominantly Native American communities to be “classified as Colored,” and was only overturned 3 years after legal segregation ended. We didn’t learn that Latinx students were forced to attend “Mexican schools” during Jim Crow. We didn’t learn that Asian-Americans managed to close the wage gap between them and white people from 1940 to 1970, and that this was because America wanted to look better on the international stage. We weren’t taught that the US government took the model minority tool many people of color took on to prove their worth and turned it into propaganda to show they “embraced” Asian-Americans. We didn’t learn that the US government used the success of Asian-Americans to deny African-American needs with the “well if they could do it… why couldn’t you?” logic.

Malcolm X.

The horrifying thing is, I’ve just scratched the surface. There is no doubt in my mind that the list of atrocities our government has committed against the people they relied on–but didn’t dignify with the constitutional meaning of “men”– is horrifyingly long. The textbooks don’t just omit these atrocities, they color it as if there was no way they could’ve happened, not in “our great nation.”

The language used in a lot of our textbooks acts as though what they write is said and done. The blip of Black history we learn is their history. The diverse ethnic groups in each of the 54 countries on a vast continent that’s three times the size of Europe is never mentioned. They don’t mention the incredible centers for education and trade that were present throughout north Africa. They don’t mention how they traded and prospered with the rest of the world before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade destabilized their economy. Nor do they mention the century-long oppression by Europeans who played with the borders of countries like kids with crayons, with an intent to create chaos that would last for decades. The worst of it is that we don’t learn that this never ended. Segregation didn’t stop, AAPI hate continued despite their general success, civil rights leaders are still villainized along with nationalists, despite their intent of having an equitable, independent country. This “history” isn’t the past. We would like it to be, that much is clear, but it isn’t, and it never will be until we recognize that.

There’s so much more I could add to this piece: “The Passive Voice of White Supremacy” by Tadashi Dozono, the ignorance around LBGTQIA+ discrimination, intersectional discrimination, and the destruction of prosperous Black communities throughout history There is so much context and dynamism in our history that we’re never taught about, and so much that we miss that explains how we got to where we got today. I’m incredibly appreciative to see people taking down statues commemorating those who fought for slavery and putting up those defaced figures in museums to show people the progress we’re making. These moves recognize that this statue existed for no good reason, but we won’t throw it away. Instead, we’ll recognize how we see it now. It inspires the thought that we as a country will recognize those who were lost and forgotten to history as well as the false idols that we chose over them.

Editor’s note: To read the full text about Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI, you can read this source from Stanford University.