The Failure of American History

by Jonas Weaver

American history is, too often, a failure. This isn’t to say that America is a failure since, by most standards, we’re pretty powerful and successful (though, I’d argue, in the wrong areas). Rather, the way American history is taught is a failure. History is a construction, just like anything else. Events occurred and years down the line we attempt to construct an accurate, or acceptable, image of what occurred. And, so far, American history is taught from the constructed narrative of the dominant group, namely white folks of European descent and with liberal values. Yes, history textbooks will mention the slave system, the forced migration of large swaths of people to not only America but the West in general. Sure, they’ll mention a few stories about the Trail of Tears and the brutality that Andrew Jackson committed against Native Americans. But rarely do they emphasize how intimately tied to the growth of America these policies and actions were, and to some extent, still are.

The slave system is presented, conventionally, as a sad misfortune in this great land of Liberty. The opposite is in fact the case, as Du Bois states, “It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy: they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits.” Instead of dealing with this evil the founders blatantly ignored it. The early history of America from, say, 1780-1830 were formative years in which the slave system was advanced in the name of profit. Andrew Jackson forcibly removed Native Americans from their lands to sell land to investors for cotton growth. Millions of acres taken by force and with bloodshed for the benefit of white landowners and that great profit maker: cotton.

Yet, somehow American history has been taught in a way that makes this unfortunate rather than a central focal point of the industrialization of America. Baptist notes in The Half Has Never Been Told that, “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850 – one fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product” (pg. 352). The slave system was one of the most disturbingly efficient means of production in the modern world. On those 3.2 million people’s a good half of America’s wealth came through primary, secondary, and tertiary effect. This wealth fueled the industrialization of America (Baptist’s book is a powerful resource on this).

But this isn’t taught in American textbooks. We weren’t taught that our first President spent three years attempting to catch an enslaved person who fled for her freedom. We minimize the complicity of our leaders and the men we admire. And American history has failed to deal with this properly. As Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel has noted, “that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Whether we like it or not our history has failed. We’ve failed to teach what founded this nation. And I wonder what it would look like differently. I also wonder what it means that Oklahoma lawmakers want to suppress this “bad” side of American history. For white Americans we are responsible, whether we like it or not. And we need to look at our past and deal with it seriously. We also need to realize the implicit racism we are born into and with. American history has failed to deal meaningfully with its past, a past built on the blood and labor of human beings from it’s inception well into the 20th century. All founded on whiteness as being the dominant group. I wonder what a re-centering would look like. And I don’t have an idea what it might look like but it needs to happen.