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"Divisive Concepts" Bans Will Undermine Teaching Some of the Values Conservatives Claim to Uphold

From Jacob Lawrence, "Douglass Argued Against John Brown's Plan to Attack the Arsenal at Harper's Ferry"

Image National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

How to teach Black history in K-12 schools has been a contentious issue in recent years, especially because of the cultural impact of the George Floyd protests. Republican politicians are alleging a vast conspiracy, cooked up by radical left-wingers, to corrupt traditional narratives of American history through what they describe as “critical race theory.” Right-wing activists have framed it as an attempt to indoctrinate students across the country into “Marxist” thought, “destroying” the foundations on which the United States was built.

Such talk has provoked state legislatures across the country to ban “critical race theory” from being taught in their schools. Many of these bans, passed and proposed, are ambiguously worded, possibly putting the teaching of Black history in jeopardy. They purport to ban the teaching of any history deemed “divisive” or “controversial” to certain groups.

There is, of course, no reason that teaching Black history will automatically evoke those feelings. Take, for example, the history of the abolitionist movement in the United States, and specifically Frederick Douglass. The movement, with Douglass at the forefront, led the effort to end the institution of slavery in this country, and it met considerable resistance throughout the country, culminating in a deadly and destructive civil war. While studying this era may bring up painful thoughts, figures of inspiration and patriotism also emerge in a careful reading of this time.

Frederick Douglass is a complex figure who offers traits that could find admiration on both the right and left. Born into slavery, he escaped bondage and became a noted writer and orator who attracted crowds, Black and white, from across the country. Despite enduring a childhood of oppression, Douglass came to embrace the principles embedded in the Constitution, arguing that the document was a defense of freedom of all peoples. At a time when many free Blacks were arguing that brighter futures for the race lay outside the country, Douglass argued fiercely against that notion. He believed that Black Americans should stay within the United States and fight for their freedoms and liberties here, even encouraging Blacks to voluntarily enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War. In a recruiting speech in Philadelphia in 1863, he said that he “[held] that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery Government…such is the Government, fellow-citizens, you are now called upon the uphold with your arms.”

The idea that the Constitution ultimately would doom slavery is a common refrain among many conservative academics today, and preventing such a speech from being studied in schools would ironically be a disadvantage to their cause. With respect to recruiting Black soldiers, Douglass stated to his crowd that “this is no time for hesitation…the hour has arrived, and your place is in the Union Army…in your hands [the] musket means liberty.” Second Amendment enthusiasts, who are often behind these bans on “critical race theory,” would do well to listen to Douglass’ words here and see what kind of figure he was. His liberal appeals for reform offer something for the left, and his dedication to constitutionalism offer something for the right.

Notably, near the end of the Civil War, abolitionists held in Syracuse, New York to decide the best course for Blacks in America once the war concluded. Douglass spoke of “[promoting] the freedom, progress, elevation, and perfect enfranchisement, of the entire colored people of the United States; to show that, though slaves, we are not contented slaves, but that, like all other progressive races of men, we are resolved to advance in the scale of knowledge, worth, and civilization, and claim our rights as men among men.” A resolution was also made stating “that as natives of American soil, we claim the right to remain upon it: and that any attempt to deport, remove, expatriate, or colonize us to any other land, or to mass us here against our will, is unjust; for here were we born, for this country our fathers and our brothers have fought, and here we hope to remain in the full enjoyment of enfranchised manhood, and its dignities.” Those abolitionists who participated saw their future was in the United States, and the best course for Blacks was to use the Constitution to fight for their rights and liberties here.

The end of the Civil War did not bring all aspirations for equality into reality for Black Americans, but Douglass still spoke of upholding the Constitution’s values. In a speech reflecting on the Civil War, amid the rise of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Douglass emphasized the importance of remembering what the war was fought over. He stated “the American people will, in any great emergency, be true to themselves. The heart of the nation is still sound and strong, and as in the past, so in the future, patriotic millions, with able captains to lead them, will stand as a wall of fire around the Republic, and in the end see Liberty, Equality, and Justice triumphant.” Even when history was seemingly making a wrong turn, with white supremacy making a resurgence resulting from deliberate undermining of Reconstruction policies, Douglass saw unity between all Americans regardless of race on the horizon. Republicans today promote themselves as being for unity and equality even in the face of adversity, and if they wish to make a valid case for that argument, they can harken back to Douglass’ words on this matter.

Abolitionists embraced what the United States had to offer despite difficult times, and it would be a shame if their history were subsumed under these Republican-proposed bans. Frederick Douglass certainly offers a unifying vision for those on each side of the political spectrum. Anyone arguing that preventing grade school students from learning this history is “protecting” them from harm would do well to read more into what they are trying to ban. It is a disservice to our young to prevent them from learning how our founding principles were embraced by those free and enslaved, and to teach us all how we can work together to build a brighter future for all Americans.