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Slavery, Genocide and AP History…

8:52 AM EST on February 26, 2015


Let’s imagine for a minute the ocean water surrounding the west African country Ivory Coast.

What does that imagining, if anything, have to do with Oklahoma and one of its seemingly countless numbers of Baptist ministers or the state’s high school history curriculum?

Maybe Jay-Z can answer the question. As he puts it in his song Oceans, “Because this water drown my family/This water mixed my blood/This water tells my story/This water knows it all.”

On a rudimentary level, what Jay-Z is referring to in the song is slavery. Ivory Coast, officially known as Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, is just one formerly colonized country in west Africa in a region known as the Slave Coast. It was here where captured native people were chained, often brutally tortured by sadistic monsters, put on ships and then taken to countries like Jamaica to work on sugar plantations or then later in time taken to the United States to work on cotton plantations. Cotton. Candy.

All this connects directly to The Trail of Tears and to Indian Territory, now known as the state called Oklahoma.

This is the type of obvious and basic information that didn’t get mentioned in the recent controversy over the Oklahoma legislative bill that would have removed Advanced Placement history courses from Oklahoma’s high schools because, as one lawmaker argued, they don’t teach enough “American exceptionalism.” How is slavery “exceptional?” How is removing native people from their lands under the disingenuous myth of the brave, far-sighted “settlers” an exceptional historical fact?

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Dan Fisher, is now apparently receiving a rewrite because of the public outcry that ensued after it received media attention. Fisher is the senior pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. I would like to hear of him making a clear and just statement from his own pulpit that he thinks slavery was a sordid part of American history and he stands against racism and bigotry before he ever again introduces another bill in the Oklahoma Legislature. That’s probably not going to happen.

I guess Fisher’s simplistic view of history does allow us to have a larger discussion about Oklahoma’s high school curriculum in general and what we teach in courses from history to English to biology and even math. Since I get paid by the word, let's attempt to have it...

The basic question is do we teach truth or not? Former U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, but they were “benevolent” slave owners, right? Is that what you want to believe? Go ahead. But has there ever really been a benevolent slave owner? No. Who in the twenty-first century believes in the whole benevolence idea of dictators and slave owners and kings and queens? They are so exceptional, right? There might have been better owners than others when it came to lynching runaway slaves, bull whipping them viciously or raping African women, but let there be no question slavery was an evil institution perpetuated by evil people. Or am I wrong, Pastor Dan? Say it from the pulpit, brother.

All teachers everywhere, whatever their subject, whether in schools or colleges, come face-to-face with the issue of brutal truth all the time. What is the truth or fact is sometimes disrupting, ugly and depressing. History shows runaway slaves in the U.S. were often lynched and left dangling like strange fruit in trees. In a science class, a dissected frog’s heart beats for just so much time and then death occurs. Death happens all around us, all the time, children. Look at it happen up close. You don’t like it? So, hey, become a doctor and save someone’s life. Calculus gives us methods to quantify change and ranges, and change and ranges bring so much conflict and energy into life’s equations that it’s impossible to set it in the stone tablets the religious fundamentalists so adore because they can never link to the Internet’s and world’s plurality and diversity. It would also take way too much time to put it in honest equations on stone tablets. A psychology course can reveal we act out of destructive subconscious patterns and that we aren’t making conscious, decent and realistic decisions about our lives. I’m gay, Dad. I want to be an artist, not a lawyer. I want to travel the world. I’m sad, but I can’t tell anyone. I feel like I want to kill myself. I just realized I can’t speak honestly to anyone because I’m not honest with myself. This can be exceptionally difficult, too.

Then there’s all that pesky literature. I’m teaching a university course on postcolonial literature this semester, and both slavery and the abhorrent manner in which American native people were treated by their western European colonizers are major topics for discussion in the class every Tuesday and Thursday. How do we understand these topics fully and yet still see light and beauty in our country?

Everyday, I do see beauty and light in my country, in my life, my beautiful wife, my children, my friends, my home, the feasts I’m proud to offer like the flawed fictional character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, but that doesn’t mean we should ever for one minute scrimp on the historically sordid and evil. In fact, the focus should always be on the sordid and evil, on the truthful realities that hurt us as deeply as we can possibly be hurt emotionally, because that’s by definition learning or education. It might mean, if we do learn, that collectively we have less sordid and less evil.

One of the first rules of medical professionals: Do no harm. Fisher’s bill and those like it do incredible harm. It’s the antithesis of healing and education.

The novel we just finished reading in my class right now is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the most famous African novel ever published. The novel tells one story of the Igbo, or Ibo, people in what is now Nigeria. The main character is Okonkwo, an extremely ambivalent character. Can we connect the Igbo people directly to American and Oklahoma history? Well, some Igbo people were captured and sold into slavery to southern cotton plantation owners through the South Carolina slave trading market. Then eventually slavery ended, of course, but people with Igbo ancestry are all around us today. “This water tells my story.”

It comes full circle. Achebe’s novel, while focused on Africa in the late nineteenth century, raises serious questions about colonization that leads directly to Western Europe, which then leads to slavery in the U.S., and then here we are in 2015 in Oklahoma as Southern Baptist ministers try to make sure our kids know how the U.S. is so exceptional.

One of the reasons Oklahoma has comparably sizeable native nations populations is because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, passed with the intense support of the racist and disgraceful former President Andrew Jackson, whose image should have been removed from the $20 bill a long time ago.

Jackson made sure native people here were forced from their lands in southern states in order for white settlers to acquire land and grow cotton, planted and harvested by, among other slaves from other African areas, Igbo people. “This water knows it all.”

The Trail of Tears, the trail which leads as directly as you can get to Oklahoma, knows it, too. It knows it all too well. The spilled blood, the cruelty, tells it. As the Igbo people picked cotton for their cruel southern plantation owners, native people were forced to walk and crawl and die to get to, or die trying to get to, Oklahoma under horrific conditions. Can you see how we directly get from the African Igbo people serving their white masters in the south to Oklahoma and the American Indian nations here? It’s all connected. So exceptional, isn’t it? Exceptional.

President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner himself, was a racist and genocidal murderer. He belongs in the same group as the late Belgium King Leopold II and Hitler. Well, come on, Jackson’s actions didn’t directly lead to the murder of as many people as Hitler, right? Is that how to reason it out? Such exceptional reasoning! This isn’t some radical statement. There’s simply no telling how many American native people were killed or injured since 1830 or are still suffering or impacted now by Jackson’s bigotry and hatred.

This is what matters today: The global connections. How can we in the twenty-first century even consider teaching our country’s history or our country’s literature or how to dissect a frog or do calculus or know about ourselves without considering how our intellectual and emotional spheres connect with the broader world in both historical and contemporary contexts?

Will we all wake up one day and stop families from drowning in oceans of hate? Yes, it could happen here. I do see beauty and light in my country. I do see it. But it’s a glimmer.

Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog. He enjoys feasting while contemplating global intellectual and emotional spheres.

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