Michael Blakey is National Endowment for the Humanities professor of anthropology, Africana and American studies and director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary.
Since Charlottesville, we’ve heard more discourse around race, diversity and historical symbols, much of it focused on how to realize justice and equality for all Americans. We’ve arrived at an inflection point about the ways our collective past is reflected in our culture and in our public and educational spaces.
Amid the events Charlottesville spawned and the ensuing rhetoric about Confederate statues and what they represent, I have reflected on a different seminal moment: my time at Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington in the late 1960s. Well before “stay woke” became a mantra, students across this country were awakened to the need to include African and African American history and cultures in the curriculum. We were successful at Coolidge.
However, when I returned to Coolidge a decade ago and asked students about the hard-fought changes we achieved, I was told that they had been removed. Sadly, throughout this nation, the history curriculum remains an explicit promulgation of white privilege, exclusion and hoarding. Where is the equality in that?
What equality does one have if American and world history are taught as a white history with sidebars for the full spectrum of humanity? The Founding Fathers commanded and watched the work of our ancestors, writing histories that omitted their accomplishments. The lives of the enslaved people who actually built our country and produced its initial resources are left unacknowledged — one does not give credit to a mule for pulling the plow.
Beyond classrooms and textbooks, this problem with U.S. history is also glaringly evident in heritage sites that show that an untarnished, valorous, uniquely industrious white story cannot coexist with the human story of African and indigenous peoples. The brutality of white slaveholders and their complicit community, which Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs documented in their slave narratives, has virtually disappeared from our understanding of how the United States became what it is.
In my field of archaeology, we understand that the story is affected by who tells it, not only because the information of descendants of the enslaved may be different from that of slaveholders’ descendants but also because they pose different questions to which our work must respond.
There have been discussions and forums to address this issue and attempt to engage these descendants. When the Virginia General Assembly-sponsored Remembering Project held public conversations across the commonwealth, African Americans were deeply critical about their ancestors’ missing history. They were especially critical of the omission or pathologizing of enslaved resistance at schools and historic sites. Though many white people said they were interested in the real story of imposed inequity, we heard that the complaints from a few white people at schools and historic sites were allowed to impede America’s ability to be honest about itself.
At another forum, when African Americans were able to pose research questions for our New York African Burial Ground Project in the 1990s, they were asked by my white geneticist colleagues what their “specific African ethnic origins” were. My white colleagues had never asked themselves that question. The explosion of public interest in ethnic origins shows this to be a better question.
Finally, a more promising forum has emerged. Recently, nearly 50 of the nation’s leading academics, historians, descendant community advocates and I convened at James Madison’s Montpelier for the first National Summit on Teaching Slavery. Montpelier is a particularly special place for me, as I am descended from people who built it. I’ve visited with fellow archaeologists and historians there and seen them work for the past 15 years inviting descendants, including me, to visit and engage. They are working toward making descendant engagement the root of everything they do and how they teach history to visitors, instead of an afterthought or token.
Descendant conversations informed Montpelier’s new “Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibition, marking a step in a continuing relationship by which Madison’s plantation might become part of the heritage of African Americans, worthy of their decision to visit and use the buildings and grounds their ancestors created, just as white people have done with a largely stolen legacy.
I was struck by the array of national scholars who came ready to learn from the people most affected by the stories we construct and to work together to frame and answer everyone’s questions. This is an exciting step forward deserves that everyone’s attention.