By Thulani Conrad Moore, Roots of Justice Trainer
Lies about historical figures are not unusual, but they are dangerous. Lies of commission are those stories told that are false. Equally dangerous are the lies of omission. Facts that have been omitted to control or shape the historic narrative. Finding the truth takes some digging.
Excavating is a process of exposing, laying bare, digging, or unearthing. It usually refers to digging soil. I am digging through history to expose nuggets of U.S. history your teacher didn't tell you. Lies of omission and lies of commission make you miss important stuff.
For instance, which of these is true about the first U.S. president, George Washington?
The cherry tree story is an example of a lie of commission. It is a lie whether our teachers knew or not.
The story about Washington’s human trafficking and hostage-taking is a lie of omission. This is a fact that is often omitted from history class. Both lies are dangerous because they give us a false picture of the multifaceted life of George Washington. But why is that important?
Let's look at U.S. history in the context of what we know today. I’ve heard it said that we cannot judge the people who lived in the past by the morality or the laws of today. That is usually an excuse to forget or excuse the inhuman behavior of famous white men like the founders.
For this post, I am going to use the terms we use in 2022 to describe their behavior. We have to remove the romantic language from our teaching of history.
Slavery is and was human trafficking. Plantations were forced labor camps. The Africans and the indigenous people held against their will were in fact hostages. History class is filled with romantic stories that should alarm our children because of the contradictions they should see. But, we have all been trained to ignore the contradictions that are right in front of us.
The pledge of allegiance has the words “liberty and justice for all”, which illuminates a clear contradiction. Black and indigenous people have never been treated the same as white people in any system in the United States.
And Justice For Some is a Justice Department study of the differential treatment of youth of color in the criminal justice system. We see contradiction, hypocrisy, and deception in this single example. See also Restorative Justice When the System is the Offender.
Another example of contradiction is when Francis Scott Key penned the words in 1814 to the star-spangled banner. The last words of the first stanza are "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Francis Scott Key was himself an enslaver. He engaged in human trafficking and hostage-taking while simultaneously waxing romantic about freedom.
There were many times when the hostages escaped their captors. Celebrations were short-lived because, in 1850, the Congress of the “land of the free and the home of the brave” bowed to the evil of the Southern states and passed the Fugitive Slave Act, This law stated that African hostages who had escaped their captors should be returned to their captivity. Congress agreed to this inhumane law to maintain relationships with rich southern whites. But not every state cooperated with this oppressive law. The white residents of Christiana, Pennsylvania refused. The Patriarch of a Maryland enslaver family, named Edward Gorsuch, came to Christiana on September 11, 1851, to kidnap his former hostage William Parker. Parker fought back and his white neighbors joined him in the fight of their lives to secure the freedom of their neighbor William Parker.
Another example of how historians play a vital role in how we interpret events is if you look up this event you will see that some writers call it the Christiana RIOT. For more information see the Christiana resistance.
The Christiana resistance is a good example of how there have always been resistors to the contradictions, hypocrisy, and inhumanity embedded in our structures and institutions from the beginning of our republic. The practice of truth telling in history class can be the first salvo in the battle to interrupt white dominance in the United States.
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