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OPINION | ZACHARY JOHNSON: Teach, don't censor, history

by Zachary Johnson Special to The Commercial | February 23, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

In the spring of 1991, my mom was supposed to sing with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Choir at a business convention in Dallas. Their selection, "I Wish I Was in Dixie," was requested by founder and then chairman of Walmart, Sam Walton.

The song, which extols the virtues of the Confederacy and longs for a return to "the land of cotton," was one of the earliest minstrel songs to gain widespread popularity in America, helping bolster the genre of comic and performative Blackness during the late-19th and early-20th centuries in America. When the band started playing, my mother sat down in protest of the overtly racist tune. She lost her scholarship. That was 30 years ago.

There wasn't anything imminently dangerous about that song selection. Lynch mobs weren't going to sprout out of the graduation day crowd. There weren't any Klansmen shiftily lying in wait behind the commencement stage. There weren't even any harmless-yet-politically offensive minstrel performers ironically listed on the lineup. Sam Walton wasn't old enough to have been a former slaver, and there aren't many stories of him displaying overtly racist behavior in his adult life.

While his song selection on that day demonstrated that the Confederacy's memory may not carry the same kind of historical and memorialized violence for some as it does others, it begs the question: Which parts of history are actually worth celebrating?

During this legislative session, Rep. Mark Lowery co-authored a bill that would've banned public institutions in Arkansas from teaching from the New York Times' acclaimed 1619 Project written and produced by MacArthur Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project seeks to shine a light on the legacy of American slavery by reconsidering the extent to which our country's 246 years of chattel slavery contextualize and direct contemporary society in the United States. From music to health care, the project touches on myriad subjects that shape and contour American life. Luckily for us, the bill failed.

The project, of course, did not come without challenges. A group of historians wrote an op-ed in the New York Times challenging the project's primary argument that the United States is a country conceived in slavery and that the period of enslavement between 1619 and 1865 is the consequential period of American history. While their challenges were heavily criticized and met with controversy, their concerns were legitimate. What does it mean for us today if we're still defined by the egregious moral failure of slavery? What does that mean for our politics? Our education? These are legitimate anxieties, but a more worthwhile question might be framed this way:

Who are we if we still celebrate the violence of the Confederacy instead of examining the way centuries of chattel slavery may have affected our capacity for justice, equity and access today?

It might be hard to imagine that events from over a century-and-a-half ago would still be affecting us today, but when you pull the lens back, it isn't that hard to imagine at all. The GI Bill helped educate thousands of Americans and has been credited as a cornerstone of the creation of the modern middle class. The economic fallout of the Civil War was disastrous for the South; to this day, no state in the Confederacy (minus Virginia) has a median income above the national average. If these moments can have a lasting impact on our contemporary society, why wouldn't slavery?

Lowery's suggestion, that schools shouldn't teach a perspective of U.S. history that might portray our country in a negative light, is damaging to the very nature of the scholarly inquiry, not to mention it fails to reflect the views of most Americans regarding the issue of slavery and its contemporary impact. A 2019 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center concluded that virtually 85 percent of Black Americans believe that slavery has a lasting impact on Black Americans today and that nearly 59 percent of White Americans believe the same. Perhaps the scope of Jones' project isn't so far beyond the pale after all.

Black History Month is here, and although Arkansas has long reveled in the history and legacy of the Confederacy, it might be time for a reframing of our history -- one that considers the perspective of those who lived in the Confederacy but lacked the privilege to tell their story. The history of slavery in America is the history of America, and until we reckon with it compassionately and urgently, all of our talk about justice and fairness will be in vain.

Working the 1619 Project into school curriculum is a start. Censoring history isn't.

Zachary Johnson is a legislative intern with Citizens First Congress, Little Rock.

CORRECTION: Johnson’s mother was to sing with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Choir at a business convention in Dallas. In an earlier version of this story, Johnson incorrectly described the event and choir.

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