History, Myth, and How We Got Into This Mess



Analysis by Reporting San Diego

August 17, 2017 (San Diego) so the. President wants to change the subject from his words to just statues. He wants to focus on just mere status. He wants to divert the discussion into historical curiosities as if they were just that. So we need to have the kind of discussion I am positive the President has never had. Or for that matter, most of the country. I did, in graduate school. This is about the meaning and teaching of history.

Let’s start with some basics. What is a historical artifact? A simple definition will suffice. It is anything of historical significance. The letters your grand father sent home from the European Theater during World War Two, a diary, books of the period in question, statues. All these are potential artifacts. For historians, they have different value depending on the type of history they are doing, or the context. Also, one of the jobs for historians is to put them in context.

Why do these items matter? Why destroying statues for the sake of destruction could be a problem?

In the ancient world conquering armies took three steps when they conquered a city. They defiled and destroyed the local temples. They took anything of value like gold candelabra, but temples were destroyed. The Jewish temple, for example, was razed to the ground twice. The second thing conquering armies did burn any libraries if they existed. You might have heard of the library at Alexandria. The third thing they did was smash down any statues. The survivors were taken and sold as slaves. In some cases, Carthage is a good example, the ground was salted. Why? All these artifacts tell a story of a people. The objective was to remove a people from history. We know of some of these peoples from early historians, whether it is Homer and the Iliad, or the Histories by Herodotus. In many cases, we have nothing more. Whole civilizations have indeed disappeared.

The tweets from the President, meant to distract, make a very crude reference to these events and imply that vandals are destroying American history. In a way, and I am sure not on purpose, the president is daring us to contextualize a lot of these monuments and events.

So let’s have this discussion. White supremacists are feeling under siege because their version of history is under attack. What they learned in school, and most Americans learned in school, is a mythical history of the country. One where there is no continuity to a far past, before Columbus on a good day, and one that skips the problematic bits.

American history does not start at Plymouth Rock. It starts when the first humans settled on the continent. It includes the people of Cahokia, near modern day St Louis. This city was the largest city in North America, outside of Meso America. This is well before Columbus.

It does include the Pueblo Civilization. One that flourished, and has a continuity to the present, before Europeans were even considering launching an expedition. The present day Pueblos also draw to the Spanish period for about half the country.

Locally it includes the Kumeyaay, who have occupied the ground I type from for at least ten thousand years. That is a continuity of history that is rarely taught in graduate school. It is not taught to school children. So forgive your children for not understanding that this land was occupied by others before we were all born.

This brings me to the first original sin of the United States: Genocide.

We have mostly erased those cultures from the discussion. We know that millions of First Americans died. During the Western Expansion, it was said that the only good Indian, was a dead Indian.

Which brings me back to two other aspects of particularly the history of the Southwest. This was first Native, then New Spanish, later Mexican territory before it became American territory by conquest. American history has done two things. The first is that children are taught that people like Junipero Serra were kindly bringers of civilization while teaching the Spanish Black legend of the 16th century. This black legend accuses Spaniards, Catholics, of genocide (yes they did commit it, but some did try to preserve histories and technologies. It is more complicated than American versions of the colonizing effort tell. In Mexico there are severe contradictions due to this period) while portraying the Jesuits of the 17th century as kindly men who brought civilization to the savages of the Southwest. Schools even have a mandatory school project where they build missions. You can go to Michaels and get the material for that.

Serra was not precisely a saint. The mission system was meant to spread the faith, as he understood it, and civilizing the people meant whippings, rapes, and mass murder. As they say, he was complicated. However, the image many Americans get is of a man kindly embracing a young native American. The statue lacks context. We need full context. Chiefly, we need to stop portraying that history as nice. It was not. Like Confederate statues, it belongs in a museum, with full contextualization. Nor did he deserve sainthood.

Once the US took over the territories, the mission system was quickly replaced by the reservation system. Did you know that in 19th Century California, a member of a tribe could not testify in court against a white person? Now you do. The US has been in the midst of a cultural genocide project since the first Europeans came to the land. Read what I wrote about what the ancients did when they conquered a city. The fact that first peoples remain, and many of them serve in the military, is a testament to them not to us.

The second Original Sin: Slavery

Slavery is premised on one thing. One group is superior to another and can extract free labor from the other. This is not, however, the original meaning of slavery in the ancient world. This racialized way of slavery, passed across generations, goes literally, to the beginning of the United States and the colonial period. It was justified using the Bible. Just as White Supremacy is justified these days. The White identity Church is a radical form of this ideology that started with slavery.

Millions of Africans were transported in that trade. This white supremacy, based on race, was not just limited to the United States. However, we as a country, refuse to confront fully the meaning of slavery. Or the fact that the first almost successful uprising against the crown happened in 1676. Oh forgive me, but the 17776 generation was actually inspired by a slave and indentured servant revolt. This has been erased though from most common knowledge.

However, white supremacists have feared a slave uprising ever since the Bacon revolt. It was the point that life was made slightly better for the indentured servants. This is a trick used ever since. As long as life is not as bad for the White tenant farmer as blacks, a division will exist. Churches helped to maintain that order.

We have had other means of keeping blacks under control.

The Jim Crow system was developed soon after reconstruction. The myth that the civil war was about state rights and not slavery, was part of that system. To disabuse you of this notion that the civil war was over state’s rights, this is one of those significant items of historical significance that you might not have heard off. This was written by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, in 1861.It is known as the Cornerstone Speech. 

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

: “… the great truth [is] that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

There you have it. The civil war was not over state’s rights. That is your full context. However, we have been fighting over the context, not starting in 1865, but soon after. This is hardly accidental.

The statues of civil war generals are part of that fight and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. This is why our first instinct is to tear them down. Like the Serra statue or the Presidio, they need context. The statues were part of a successful marketing campaign where the original sin was not spoken off. They were fully part of the Lost Cause Period of the 1920s when the civil war entered the mythic space. Birth of a Nation was one of the triggers. It presented the Klan as freedom fighters, not the thugs and terrorists they were. Disney did not help either. I remember watching programs in Mexico that did not show the civil war for what it was.

The system of mass incarceration, that replaced Jim Crow, is part of that.it goes hand in hand with our refusal to face that history.

Now, there is a matter of logistics. There is no way we can preserve every statue that was erected in the 1920s and 30s. Nor should they stay in a park, or in front of court houses. There are literally thousands of these things, and not just in the South. But best examples have to be moved to museums, where as we wrote the other day, they must be put in full context. Moving Stonewall Mountain could possibly be done, but if not, context needs to happen as well. This is America’s original sin. The context is Klan robes. The context is that past we refuse to confront.

Yes, it is time for Americans to face that original sin and the system of white supremacy that still pervades the country. Melting these things, and I mean all of them, will make you feel better but will allow those who benefit to continue denying this history.

But what about Germany? I hear you. Actually, Germany has monuments to the Holocaust, and they maintain the camps as permanent memorials. Their children are taken to these memorials where they are taught every dirty bit of that history, age permitting. You try showing American teens graphic photos of lynching in the United States. You try including post civil war photos of scarred backs in textbooks. In certain areas of the country, this is impossible.

You try having an honest discussion about the connections of mass incarceration to yes, slavery.

American Exceptionalism

And now I am really going to step in it. I know. We are not exceptional. Nor did Providence ordain the country. However, slavery and western expansion were done in the name of this. So were war crimes in the Philippines in 1898. It is part of the present national myth as well.

We have told ourselves many lies to create a mythic past

You know George Washington could not tell a lie, and he admitted to cutting the cherry tree. That story was created out of whole cloth by Parson Weems after Washington was dead. However, that story allowed us to miss the complexity of the man, especially in grammar school. Yes, we did have this discussion in upper division history classes. Why did Carver come up with this story? It was a way to help create a mythic figure, god like.

We must move away from this, and into a history when we are dealing with men. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and he wrote documents that were aspirational. He was not a god, but a flawed human being with warts and all. Trust me, he had many warts.

We must deal with the fact that the country is changing. One reason these white supremacists feel under siege, however they have always felt that way, is that the country is changing.

Until now I was torn about holding a truth and reconciliation commission. I am no longer torn. The country as a whole needs to confront this past and put a lot of context in place. If a commission will help do this, by all means. However, this commission must deal with both slavery and genocide. They are connected


We are also including the three Presidential Tweets because they are full of dog whistles to the white supremacist movement.

This last tweet is the most significant of the three. It is clear that he is implying that monuments to white supremacy can never be replaced. That is your megaphone right there. This is a nod and a wink to David Duke and the Klan. They see these monuments are not only part of their heritage, but removal is the vandals at the gates.

In time we might thank this man for starting this painful discussion, In a sense, even in this darkness, he might doing us a favor. I am sure not the kind of favor he intended.


We will go back to not magnifying his Tweets.


Edited to correct one error in my memory.


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  1. History, The Stories We Tell and Public Policy – Reporting San Diego

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