Learning hard histories could make students uncomfortable. That’s a good thing.

Professor-teacher in classroom at the blackboard writes formulas for students.
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Perhaps because the notion of Critical Race Theory is so vague to most conservative voters, Glenn Youngkin labeled himself the “parents’ rights” candidate when he ran for (and won) Virginia Governor in 2021.

His efforts were an attempt to further instill fear on the part of the white electorate. He raised his racist bullhorn by declaring not only his intent to ban Critical Race Theory the day he was elected, but also to outlaw the reading of the critically acclaimed and award-winning novel by author Toni Morrison, Beloved, which was turned into a major feature film.

Beloved, a truthful and painful story of the lives and loves of two enslaved Black people in the American South, has become an integral part of the canon of not only African-American literature, but of U.S.-American literature generally.

After Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial election and had the support of the Virginia state legislature, new bills to limit the teaching of our country’s true past circulated throughout the Virginia statehouse.

House Bill No. 781, proposed by Republican Delegate Wren Williams, prohibits “divisive concepts” from instruction in Virginia public elementary and secondary schools. While Williams made clear his opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory, the wording “divisive concepts” in its vagueness closes the door on the teaching of anything and everything conservatives deem appropriate and necessary to ban.

In the wording of the bill, Virginia’s social studies curriculum will be standardized (a.k.a. controlled and regimented) and educators will teach about, “…founding documents of the United States,” like “the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, including Essays 10 and 51, excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and the writings of the Founding Fathers of the United States.”

Even Virginia’s elementary and secondary school students, I would hope, know so much more than the legislators attempting to enact these severe constraints on curriculum and pedagogy throughout their systems of “education.”

By the 5th grade, students should have learned about the “Lincoln-Douglas” debates of 1858 in Illinois between incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Lincoln, his Republican challenger in the race for U.S. senator. The major topic during the series of seven debates included the candidates’ views on whether new states joining the union would permit or prohibit slavery within their borders.

Wanting to be known as “The Education Governor,” one of Youngkin’s executive orders ended the use of “divisive concepts” like Critical Race Theory in schools (Critical Race Theory is not currently part of the curriculum).

One day later in an interview on Fox, Youngkin doubled down on his misunderstanding, perpetuation of misinformation, and yes, politicization of the teaching of the legacy of racism and race relations in the United States: “We are not going to teach the children to view everything through a lens of race. Yes, we will teach all history, the good and the bad. Because we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we have come from. But to actually teach our children that one group is advantaged and the other disadvantaged because of the color of skin, cuts everything we know to be true.”

In his run for a second term as the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis (R) has also doubled down on Youngkins’ assault on teaching the hard history of the United States.

DeSantis, governor of his self-proclaimed “free state of Florida,” has banned books; taken over a formerly progressive and successful college and university system and turned it a deep crimson blood red; eliminated advanced placement courses on African American history; criminalized gender-affirming care for trans people and the use of public facilities aligning with their gender identities; banned people’s use of gender pronouns that may vary from their sex assigned at birth; eliminated discussions of race, sexuality, and gender in schools; revoked reproductive freedoms from Florida residents; shipped undocumented immigrants hundreds and even thousands of miles away, and in his Goofy war with Mickey Mouse, has eliminated thousands of well-paying jobs and significant physical infrastructure for Florida residents.

Youngkin, DeSantis, and other right-wing politicians and parents’ rights groups like Moms for Liberty argue that the schools must not teach about topics of race and the racist legacy of the United States because it makes white students feel bad and guilty about being white. In other words, it makes them uncomfortable.   

In his TED Talk, “We Must Confront the Painful Part of U.S. History,” historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, tells the story of his trip to the historic home of James Madison, a designer of the U.S. Constitution and the chief architect of the Bill of Rights.

At Madison’s famous home, Montpelier, situated on thousands of beautiful acres with the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, Jeffries was honored with a private tour of the mansion. Upon entering Madison’s library, Jeffries was overtaken by the realization that it was here that Madison crafted the immortal words of the great Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of our Constitution.

Breaking his reverie, however, the tour guide then took Jeffries to the building’s cellar in which the guide asked him to gently run his hand over the bricks holding up the walls. He felt and saw ridges and impressions on the bricks that looked to him like tiny handprints. The guide told him that those impressions were of the little hands of the enslaved children “who were never compensated for the bricks they made.”

This legacy of slavery has been handed down over 400+ years after the institution was introduced on these shores.

Jeffries stated in his TED Talk, “History reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of greats like James Madison. But hard history reminds us that we as a nation also stand on the shoulders of enslaved children, little boys and little girls who with their bare hands made the bricks to serve as the foundation for this nation, and if we are serious about creating a fair and just society, then we would do well to remember them.”

Jeffries asserts that we must teach and “disrupt the continuum of hard history” and seek the truth. We must begin by lifting the rug and sweeping away the diseased dust mites of white supremacy, racism, nativism, neo-fascism, and all the diseased oppressive mutations.

And maybe this could be one of the reasons why many white people shut down and refuse to even consider discussing the “hard history” in which our government – with the consent of “we the people” – has marginalized, harassed, violated, and oppressed an entire population in every sense of the term.

By acknowledging and learning about this history, white people may in fact feel “uncomfortable.” For some, it may challenge the stability of their identities and potentially pose a narcissistic injury. But if we allow ourselves to stay in the discomfort, we can expand our sense of identity and community while liberating ourselves from the guilt and shame we may have felt before undertaking this transformative journey of learning and understanding.

Teaching the hard history of Christian dominance and privilege

European Christian colonialism stands as the very foundation of Capitalism in which the accumulation of capital has been extracted from the commodification of Africa and from Black people. It is more than symbolic that in 1711, slavers sold African bodies in slave markets on Wall Street in New York City (named in 1644 after King George III of England gave the lands to his brother, the Duke of York).

The verb “to colonize” can be described as the process of appropriating a place or domain to establish political and economic control. Throughout history, nations have invaded not only their neighbors’ lands, but also territories clear across the globe for their own use. Though the official terms “colonization,” “colonizer,” and “colonized” may have changed somewhat, nowhere in the world have we experienced a truly post-colonial society. Imperialism remains, though at times possibly in less visible forms.

From a series of papal bulls (decrees or edicts) in Rome beginning in the 1100s began sanctions, enforcements, authorizations, expulsions, excommunications, denunciations, and, in particular, expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church.

These bulls established what would come to be known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”: a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of territories not already inhabited by Christians.

Two of these papal bulls particularly stand out: Pope Nicholas V issued his “Romanus Pontifex” in 1455 granting Portugal a monopoly trading status with Africa and authorizing the enslavement of indigenous populations.  

In 1455, Pope Nicholas V called his Christian followers “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans,” take their possessions, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

And Pope Alexander VI issued “Inter Caetera” in 1493 to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they “discovered,” and to promote Christian domination in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. This edict gave license to the genocide of Black, Brown, Asian, and non-Christian people across the world. It was the stimulus for Columbus’ travels, all based on patriarchal Christian white supremacy.

The United States justified its “Monroe Doctrine” in the 1880s by declaring U.S. dominion over the Western Hemisphere and “Manifest Destiny” claim of westward expansionism as its divine destiny to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond.

US legal doctrine is based on the Doctrine of Discovery. In 1823, in the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Doctrine of Discovery became part of U.S. federal law used to dispossess Native peoples of their lands. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands” and Native peoples certain rights of occupancy.

In another example, in the 1835 Tennessee Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Forman, the court ruled: “The principle declared in the fifteenth century as the law of Christendom that discovery gave title to assume sovereignty over, and to govern the unconverted natives of Africa, Asia, and North and South America, has been recognized as a part of the national law, for nearly four centuries.”

Historian Amanda Tyler defines Christian nationalism as “…a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism relies on the mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s providence in order to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. Christian nationalism demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life, buttressed by the active support of government at all levels.” 

Anthea Butler distinguishes, more specifically the definition of white Christian nationalism: “Simply put, it is the belief that America’s founding is based on Christian principles, white protestant Christianity is the operational religion of the land, and that Christianity should be the foundation of how the nation develops its laws, principles and policies.”

As we must teach, age appropriately, topics of race and racism in our schools, we must also teach topics of the hard history of Christian dominance, hegemony, and oppression in our schools, from the politics surrounding the Crucifixion, the Roman Empire’s conversation to Christianity and its spread, to the Christian Crusades, Doctrine of Discovery, Spanish and Mexican Inquisitions, the taking hold of Christian nationalism, and other topics.

By Christians of all backgrounds acknowledging and learning about this history, yes, they may in fact feel “uncomfortable.” Like issues of race for white people, for some Christians, this may challenge the stability of their identities and potentially pose a narcissistic injury. But if we allow ourselves again to stay in the discomfort, we can expand our sense of identity and community.

I recognize that no religion is monolithic. In Christianity, there are many separate and some associated denominations with differing direct connections with practices from ancient times. Generally, however, Christians in most Western societies do benefit in varying degrees from Christian privilege and its legacies, regardless of denomination. These are unearned privileges that are not accorded to non-Christians.

Yes, while we need to educate ourselves and our students about the genuine advancements made possible by Christian denominations, we cannot merely look at the beautiful art, music, and houses of worship, but must also investigate the hands that formulated the bricks in the basements on which the foundations rest.

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