It’s about that time again. Soon, Uncle Sam’s minions will be knocking at your doors demanding all kinds of personal information (actually, these days they tend to mail out questionnaires instead). Big Brother wants to pry into your life to determine to the first decimal point how many children you have, if you rent or own, how much you make, your marital status (and by inference then, your sexual orientation perhaps), etc. Please, I beg of you, give him this information. Normally, I would never advocate letting the old man know anything personal without a warrant, but in this case, it serves a larger cause. Future historians rely on census data for a wealth of information for their research. On behalf of my successors, I ask for your cooperation. This will be of great assistance later, and I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.
I have another request too. When it comes time to identify your race, please consider your response carefully. Growing up in Oklahoma, I understood race as a very nuanced thing. Here, you get used to seeing black people who are tribal members and people with blond hair getting out of trucks with license plates from the various Indian nations. The intermixing is substantial here. Most of the white people I knew growing up weren’t really “white.” That was part of how I understood “white” — which was about the culture you identified with and your general appearance more so than any actual biological status. I was white but I wasn’t “all white,” and that was common in Oklahoma where there is such a large Indian population and inter-marriage/breeding was de rigueur. I always put “white” on paperwork asking for my race because that was the culture I identified with, even though I knew I was Native American too.
Back then, on census forms, you had to pick one race or another. That is no longer the case. Now, you can choose to identify as bi- or multi-racial. So, I am on a campaign to get people to consider carefully how they identify on the census paperwork. If you know you are mixed race, please put that down. Even if you are not a tribal member or aren’t active in a community with which you do share a blood connection, it’s honest to report your blended heritage. I think that if we all do so, the number of mixed-race people in this country will vastly increase. I think that the norm in our country *is* toward a blending of the races, but there’s no real evidence (beyond anecdotal) of this as long as people do not report their heritage properly. I think we are more of a melting pot than we often own up to, and I think it’s high time we did so.
Amusingly, since Barak Obama has become our president, there’s been all kinds of talk by the usual pontificators about his status as a person of mixed-race background. They act as if this is a bizarre or complicated thing. I think it’s not. I think it’s normal. I think most Americans do live a multi-cultural experience and we should celebrate that. We should talk about it. I don’t think Obama has done anything out of the ordinary “straddling two cultures.” Geez, they act like it’s a monstrous effort — or something worthy of the old freak shows. I think millions of American do it all the time. Most of them don’t probably do it as consciously as some, but I think it’s there and, for the most part, a piece of the mundanity of life in America.
So, on the upcoming census (2010), I intend to identify as a person of mixed race. If that applies to you and in the past you have identified with one dominant race or another, I urge you to consider selecting “mixed race” as well. The world will still spin on its axis and The End is not near, if we do. We’ll really be the same people we were yesterday, only more honest and statistically more interesting as well.
Normally, I have a lot of latitude in the classroom. I am, you know, the teacher, and my professional credentials usually earn me free reign in how I run my classes. I must use the department-approved textbook, which I do my best to undermine, but for the most part, what I do with my course is left to my own expert choices. Or, at least, that’s how it’s worked in the past. This semester, however, I am compelled to give my students pre- and post-tests (which the department refers to as “diagnostic testing”) to ascertain how well they’ve learned (and how well I’m teaching them). I immediately sensed danger.
Here’s a sampling of the questions:
The governmental body which was the seed for the system of representative government in America was the…
a. English Protectorate.
b. Virginia House of Burgesses.
c. Mayflower Compact.
d. Massachusetts General Court.
(Please note that the Iroquois Confederacy was not an option.)
The “Era of Good Feelings” was noted for the…
a. absence of organized political parties opposing each other.
b. return to the political and economic philosophy of Jefferson.
c. Exceptionally strong leadership by James Monroe as president and head of his party.
d. Absence of any important political and economic issues.
(Please note that “Why is this label important?” is not an option.)
Manifest Destiny might be described as the belief that Americans were…
a. God’s chosen people.
b. a melting pot of immigrants.
c. destined to oppose the British.
d. obliged to educate the Native Americans.
(Please note that “selfish and greedy” are not an option.)
And, my favorite:
In May 1856, ___________ slaughtered five unarmed, pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in “Bleeding Kansas.”
a. Charles Sumner
b. Frederick Douglass
c. William Lloyd Garrison
d. John Brown
(Please note the use of the word “slaughtered” and refer to the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” for more on that.)
I told my students not to sweat the exam much because I think this kind of test represents the lowest form of knowledge possible and it has no bearing on the work we do in class. More concerning to me is that my students won’t do well on the post-test because I have absolutely no intention of discussing any of these topics. We are doing substantive work on other issues, and the heart of the difference is that I have a philosophical beef with the department’s approach. I don’t think it does a damn thing for my students in helping them understand our country and our people that they know the phrase or concept of “manifest destiny” (capitalized or not). I do think, however, that it is important that they understand the role of white *and* black slavery in settling our country and how religious intolerance set the tone for early political disputes in the colonies (something with which we still struggle today). The test doesn’t much ask about that — or other topics that I think are vital like the evolution of family organization and the development of rights for women in the U.S. from the colonial times to the late nineteenth century. I guess you can tell what the department thinks is important. It is committed to the traditional political history that dominates American historiography (despite ongoing and fervent critiques by myself and others). We are on different paths, clearly.
I asked the department secretary what would happen if my students did poorly on the post-test. She said they review these to learn if there is a need for improvement in teaching methods. I decided not to pick the fight on the issue yet. I sense it coming though and resent the threat to control in my classroom. I will not be forced to teach to this test.
I know we’ve been here before. This is not new territory. Bear with me anyway. I cannot control myself.
In preparing for my class this semester, I’ve been reviewing the textbook that I am required to use. I didn’t even have to get far in before I was popping gaskets! I’ve gone off before (refer to the American Conspiracy Series from last May/June) on the way textbooks treat Native Americans and their settlement of the United States — that is, dismissively and superficially. This is really stale news. And, yet, when I again faced that old, tired issue, it didn’t fail to stir me up all over.
I wonder: since this problem is so well known, why has it still not been corrected? We know that our textbooks are racist and biased. We know that they do not fairly treat pre-Columbian (before Columbus came to the new world — yeah, we even mark time by him, for Christ’s sake!) history and culture. Despite this knowledge, we continue to perpetuate the problem. This suggests that the sin is willful and intentional. We *choose* to write racist history. We can’t claim ignorance. We know what we’re doing. So, when we continue to do it, there’s malice there.
When the department I teach in selected this textbook as the required history for all general education classes, they chose to discriminate against American Indians all over again. They made the decision to participate in the racist historiography that dominates in the U.S. My school is part of the problem. It is a responsible party, and it can talk diversity and multiculturalism all it wants to. It has shown where its true feelings lie.
I do not share that perspective. I am, then, teaching against the book. What else can I do? I don’t want to be culpable here. I don’t want to spread any racist historiography (or at least not consciously biased — I’m not sure you can avoid all prejudice completely). That runs contrary to my faith. So, I dedicated my first lecture to a brief run-through on a handful of different Indian traditions. There’s over five hundred different Native American groups here, so there’s no earthly way I could review all of them. Instead, I picked five different tribes and went over some of the practices unique to each. I gave some background on their laws, governmental arrangements, and living habits. We talked about some of the differences between white culture and these others and what this demonstrates about them. We talked about the inventiveness and rationality behind some of the Indian practices — rather than labeling their cultures undeveloped because they didn’t have gunpowder, like the text does. I did what I could, without any real expertise in the area, to undo the damage of the book and treat the topic with respect.
There has to be better options out there. With the proper intent, a palatable textbook can be written — or probably even already exists. With all the historical and anthropological information available to us, we could do better than spending a mere 15 freaking pages on the thousands of years spanning the time between the first record of human inhabitation in North America to the coming of the European explorers. It’s an absolute insult! What could be more ridiculous and a sign of our lagging progress in embracing true diversity in our historiography? 15 pages, for God’s sake!
Like many historians, I have a great dislike for political scientists. They are a wannabe off-shoot of our noble discipline. I don’t think it’s the least coincidental that as historians broadened their fields of study to include subjects beyond a focus on politics and that as “great man history” died, political science as a separate discipline was born. Those who don’t want to have to bother with social issues, women’s subjects, and more of the like can retrench in the obsession with politics and elections and that rot. It’s much nicer than the history of toilets and satisfies a certain elitist snobbery that loves to pontificate on natural rights, the social contract, and Greco-Roman ethics. Most of the Poli Sci classes I took in college, I slept through (“Poli Sci, why try?” was the slogan non-major students used to describe them). What passed for insightful analysis there was nothing near the level required for any of my history classes (although my instructors often had a better sense of humor than the historians I took). Frequently, I became the go-to student the professor called on in those classes — even in preference to the Poli Sci majors. So, you can see up front, that my rant today is fed by a pre-existing bias.
Recently, the political scientists and pundits in Oklahoma have been all over the “historical shift” in the party in power in the state legislature. For the first time, both houses are being run by the Republicans (the Senate has never had a Republican majority before). Traditionally, Oklahomans (NOT Tulsans) were yellow-dogs, and this was what would have been considered a blue state (prior to color coding). The trend toward the right began in the sixties, culminating in the Republican sweep in the 2008 elections. This is the story the wonks are consumed with (despite the fact that our Governor is a Democrat).
Here’s the difference on what a historian does with this story: Oklahomans have long held traditional social values and there is a time-honored libertarian streak amongst them. Democrats here are extremely conservative in this sense — particularly in comparison to the national party. The state convention does NOT support gun-ownership restrictions, gay marriage, or abolition of the death penalty. It is hostile to big government and likes to talk about family values. Democrats brought prohibition here — where it still remains in many counties. The difference between the two parties in this state is largely a matter of degrees, rather than a true fundamental philosophical difference. If you talk to Democrats from Oklahoma, you’re likely to hear a tirade about abuse of the welfare system and the need for longer prison terms. Hence, in the ado over the comments made by the Dixie Chicks about President Bush, Oklahoman Toby Keith was quick to criticize the women’s liberal statements. Later, he had to point out to people that he is a life-long registered Democrat. The fact that he had to clarify that demonstrates exactly what I’m talking about. Keith really isn’t atypical. There’s a lot of conservative Democrats here — and some moderates. Finding true liberals gets a little tricky, and if you want to go left of the Democrats — well, there’s me and…well, there’s me.
The switch in parties, then, isn’t really that significant. It’s a title change, but not much else. This state has largely always been a one-party state. The lemmings are just switching identification, and in the last couple of decades, as this transfer developed, pundits have come to assume this is a two-party state because it briefly appeared that way. Thus, they see the recent election as a great departure (because they have no long-term memories like historians). To me, it’s the same crap, different name. The illusion of two parties was a brief historical blip as the shift transitioned, rather than a static norm. We are now moving toward a return to the one party system. This “historic shift” isn’t a real change in philosophy or goals. It’s a repudiation of outsiders and a sign that “Republicanism” is no longer associated with the Civil War in this state. Thus, there is no incentive anymore for conservatives to disassociate from the Republican Party. It really doesn’t matter what they call themselves here. It’s really just a signal (read: flipping off) for the rest of the country. You all can get consumed in it, or, like me, you can see it as the non-event it is (yawn).