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Opinion It’s not American history without Black history

Attorney Ben Crump, left, stands with three Leon County, Fla., high school students who threatened to sue Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over his ban of a proposed Advanced Placement course on African American studies on Jan. 25 in Tallahassee. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)
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Welcome to American History Month — often called Black History Month. The former can’t be understood without the latter.

As this year’s observance begins, cynical Republican politicians are trying to advance their own careers by whitewashing our nation’s past. Florida’s bombastic Gov. Ron DeSantis has been in the headlines for pushing the College Board to retreat on its draft curriculum for Advanced Placement African American studies. But he’s hardly alone. When Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office last year, his first executive act was to bar the state’s public schools from teaching “inherently divisive concepts” about our history regarding race.

It is becoming a MAGA article of faith that the nation’s story must be told without causing any White people discomfort — and without any acknowledgment that our country’s past has shaped its present. This attempted act of erasure cannot be allowed to succeed.

There is much in America’s history that should cause discomfort. Philosopher George Santayana’s famous maxim is true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We make no progress toward a more perfect union if we teach the nation’s triumphs without also teaching its sins.

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Leave aside, for the moment, whether to peg the dawn of our nationhood at 1607, when the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown, Va.; or at 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were bartered to the Jamestown colonists; or at 1620, when the Mayflower landed in what is now Massachusetts. Remember that there were thriving civilizations here for thousands of years before any Europeans arrived, and that those Native American populations were dispossessed and decimated over centuries in a process that can only be described as genocide.

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Remember that Spanish settlers were here before the English, and that they founded St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest continuously inhabited European-established city in the country, in 1565. Remember, when MAGA demagogues rail about a Latino “invasion” across the border with Mexico, that the entire southwestern third of the continental United States was once part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

And remember that chattel slavery — the “ownership” of millions of African Americans, over two and a half centuries — was indispensable for this nation’s growth into an economic giant. In the years before the Civil War, cotton that was grown, picked and processed by enslaved African Americans in the South produced more than half of all U.S. export earnings. That cotton, the yield of stolen labor, generated vast wealth for the owners of textile mills in New England and for firms on Wall Street that financed the whole enterprise.

Remember, too, that this systematic exploitation did not end with the Civil War. Remember that Reconstruction lasted only until 1877, when a “compromise” to end a dispute over an allegedly “stolen” election resulted in the withdrawal of Union troops from the states of the former Confederacy — which allowed the antebellum White elite to reassert its dominion over African Americans. The resulting Jim Crow regime of repression, codified in law and enforced by terror, resumed the widespread theft of labor and wealth from Black Americans. Practices such as redlining, racist discrimination and the deliberate undervaluation of Black-owned property extended the thievery to Northern cities as well.

Through it all, somehow, Black Americans remained patriotic Americans. I had a great-uncle who fought with the American Expeditionary Forces in France in World War I, serving in an ambulance unit that tended the wounded on the Western Front. My father and all three of his brothers served in the military during World War II. My father-in-law served in the Navy in the Pacific, and left us a hand-drawn map charting the progress of his ship, with its all-Black crew, as they made their way from island to island, heading north toward Japan.

Reducing African American history to a simple story consisting of just three chapters — slavery, the Civil War and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — avoids discomfort but also erases truth. It falsifies not just Black history but American history. And it ignores a lesson that all of human history teaches us: The past is prologue. What happened yesterday resonates in ways that impact what happens tomorrow.

The College Board says its final proposed curriculum for AP African American studies was not forced by DeSantis’s demagoguery and just happens to eliminate much of what he objected to. Whether that is true, the deletions are a grievous error. Any good college-level course should present material that challenges preconceived notions and conventional wisdom. Educators must not allow the phrase “critical race theory” to be used to blacklist scholars and their work the same way the word “communist” was used in the McCarthy era.

Black history is our collective history as Americans. It must be told — in full.