Into American history without fear

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And because I am an established American historian, I believe it is my moral duty to expose the multiple atrocities committed by Katherine Kirsten against our nation’s history and its dedicated public school teachers in her most recent Star Tribune op-ed opposing Minnesota’s new ethnic studies curriculum (“Extremist ideology has already hijacked Minnesota social studies classrooms.” April 7). She concludes with a strong warning that, in adopting this program, Minnesota has “sleepwalked into an extremist hijacking of our public schools.”

Kirsten’s alleged “kidnappers” are members of the Minnesota Ethnic Studies Alliance, a statewide umbrella working group made up of public school educators and community leaders. In fact, Kirsten asserts that their attacks on public education are inspired by staunchly pro-Palestinian and anti-American biases, and in order to support her indictment, she distorts one coalition member’s personal assertion that “‘Given the devastating impact of Israeli colonialism,’” a study of Israeli settler colonialism In comparison to American settler colonialism” it is “at the heart of the discipline of ethnic studies”.

To bolster her accusation of rampant anti-Americanism among teachers, Kirsten cites the Ethnic Studies Standards for Teachers, which instruct students to consider and how different groups of Americans struggle for “liberation against systematic and coordinated practices of power.” “To analyze the impact of colonialism” and “dominant and non-dominant narratives.” In this regard, Kirsten condemns the guidelines’ insistence on the importance of students coming to terms with historical concepts such as “decolonization,” “dispossession,” and “resistance” as anti-national.

Kirsten’s essay summary is complete, let’s address these many atrocities in American history through her authorship. This task is so straightforward that any knowledgeable citizen can undertake it simply by answering these obvious questions about the American Revolution:

Didn’t Sam Adams, George Washington, and all the other Founding Fathers struggle “for liberation against systematic and coordinated exercises of power” by English politicians intent on preserving their empire? Wasn’t the Declaration of Independence a declaration of war of “decolonization”? Didn’t the slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” express “resistance” against financial “dispossession” by the British government? (All words surrounded by quotation marks are Kirsten’s selections from the Ethnic Studies Standards.)

But wait. there is more:

Did the 9,000 black patriots who fought alongside slaveholder George Washington share his views on American independence, or did they explain it differently by constructing their own “non-hegemonic narrative” of black liberation? The same question concerns the approximately 20,000 black slaves who gained their freedom by running away to join the British.

And still more:

Was it not the Cherokee Nation’s choice to support the patriot cause and the Mohawk’s choice to ally with British attempts to put an end to white settler colonialism? Did the activists and patriots who called themselves “Daughters of Liberty” fully share their husbands’ understanding of the revolution, or did they construct their own “non-hegemonic narrative” of women’s empowerment?

In listing her recent objection to the Ethnic Studies Guidelines, Kirsten explains why she avoids engaging with the history of the nation she supposedly loves so dearly. In the final analysis, her objections are due to her fear that students will grapple with historical facts, problems, and questions that will make them dissatisfied with today’s oppressive customs and laws. She complains that teachers will pressure their students to use what they learn (using concepts such as “decolonization,” “non-hegemonic narratives,” and “liberation”) as a “springboard for action” to solve “current and controversial global problems.” “

But such goals should inspire admiration, not fear. There is only good that can come from asking Minnesota students to consider historical questions like these:

If 9,000 black soldiers fought with slaveholders Washington while 20,000 enslaved people found freedom by fleeing to the British side, was the American Revolution also a black rebellion against slavery and systemic white supremacy? Could such a massive black rebellion have anything to do with the Revolutionary declaration that “all men are created equal”?

If you are a Black student enrolled at Minneapolis North High School, where might the answer to this question lead you next? Why don’t we start with George Floyd and then go back to the history of slavery itself — to vengeful slave rebels like Nat Turner and Joseph Sink, to the violence inspired by John Brown, to Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress and the mother of his six enslaved children. Illegitimate children, to the American Colonization Society’s program (which Abraham Lincoln once supported) to return blacks “to Africa”? These revelations automatically raise more troubling questions about “liberation from systematic, coordinated practices of power,” and in this case about expanding systems of slavery, systemic white racism, and the exceptionally brave people, black and white, who fought against them.

Can you embark on a similar historical journey back to the Revolution as a Native student enrolled at Bemidji Senior High School or a female student of any color? Will you come back with your own list of disturbing contemporary questions regarding the massive impoverishment of indigenous people in our state or the assault on women’s right to bodily autonomy by right-wing politicians in Minnesota? naturally.

By the same token, the preferred destination of a historically commuter student enrolled in Austin High School might have been Texas before its annexation in the 1820s, not Boston in 1776. Why? Because the Austin metro area is about 32% Hispanic or Latino, this number is growing rapidly. What could best explain who these new neighbors are, why they arrived “here” and what kind of culture they bring with them? How about a deep dive into multicultural history?

Finally, what insights can the historical journey provide to students of all stripes sitting next to each other in the classroom at St. Paul Central High School? Above all is the realization that they have absolutely no reason to feel personal guilt or shame over the sins and suffering of previous generations. Which was then. This is now. Instead, they (like all of us) can draw on what our conflicting multicultural past teaches us to embrace our common humanity and work together to bring our nation closer to realizing its founding principle—that we are all created equal.

When Kirsten sarcastically describes this process as a “launching pad” for young people to engage in politically destructive behavior, what she actually means, to me, is to empower them to question and criticize intelligently and try to change for the better world that we adults have created for them.

In the final analysis, I believe a sense of deep cultural/racial apprehension explains Kirsten’s historical astigmatism and why she warns us that “Minnesota has sleepwalked toward an extremist hijacking of our public schools.” Such a view goes far to explain why such a staunch patriot harbors such a desperate fear of American history.

James Brewer Stuart is the James Wallace Professor of History, Emeritus, Macalester College and creator of the anti-racism YouTube series “Jim Stewart’s historical tonic for weak white people.” (tinyurl.com/stewart-youtube).

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