The American Education system is failing our nation. Leaders in office now are the products of History Lesson not learned (or not taught). Learning about America’s growth and trials through the Revolution and Civil War times, is a lot more important than most students understand. It’s more than just learning dates and names; understanding the mistakes of our past is the only way we have of making our futures better. The more I learn and come to understand the more I’d like to go back in time with a switch in one hand and a club in the other. The only thing it seems people have learned from American History is to keep on making the same mistakes over and over, giving them a new name.
This country was built by and for rich powerful white men. Anyone who ever caused them to worry about losing that wealth and power, they’d strike down in any way they thought they could. What saddens me, sickens me is, knowing that perhaps the biggest reason any Northerners wanted to free the slaves, was to rid the South of their wealth and power. It was never really about equality or human rights. If it was, things would have gone a lot differently. Power and greed have always been at the forefront of American Politics.
When asked the question “what did it mean to be free?” I suppose the answer would depend on who you were asking. To Yankees, it meant the opposite of slavery. But anything beyond that was a different matter. To some slaves it meant no more beatings for poor, lazy work; working for your own; and having a recognized marriage. For other slaves it meant working harder than you’d ever worked before; being cast out into the street with nothing, and knowing nothing (Fountain Hughes, Quoted in Fort, 1996); and being hungrier than you could ever imagine. To slave owners it meant losing everything you built, paying more for your help than you though they worth, and eventual ruin. You see, the problem with looking back into history is there are so many angles to look from. If you chose only one, you miss the bigger picture, and neglect someone somewhere. For this reason, segregated History Lessons are ill-equipped to break the bonds of racism in this nation. Everyone has a story to tell, and all made an impact on today.
This nation truly missed a historic opportunity to create a functioning multiracial society. Look around us, racism is still an aching wound in our backs. And I don’t just mean for blacks, I mean for all of us. Lines have been drawn for so many centuries, I’m not sure they will ever be erased. Like I said before, this nation was built by and for rich powerful white men. How did they become so rich and powerful? Greed drove their hearts, and wealth blinded their souls. What radicals called the Reconstruction period, became nothing more than another battleground for rich powerful white men to flex their political muscles over who was in control. It was never about restoring the Union, freeing slaves, or building a strong nation.
Human beings were used over and over, even after the abolition of slavery, as ends in themselves. Fountain Hughes, a former slave, recounts his mother bounding him out for a dollar a month (quoted in Fort, 1996), slavery didn’t end they just changed the name and added some rules. Families, black and white, who’d dreamt of owning their own land and moving up the agricultural latter, became bound by debt to their landlords that they could never pay off. These rich, powerful, white men running the nation didn’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do those in office today.
There isn’t much evidence needed to back up the claim that events from the Reconstruction cast long shadows over race relations for future generations. Just look at the history of segregation, poor work conditions; and “Big Whitey” with his thumb pressed down hard on all other races who threatened to take away his wealth and power. What’s worse than the racial divide is the divide amongst the same race. Events of the Reconstruction pitted whites against whites, brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor. It was almost like a free-for-all anarchy of a situation. Every man for himself, take what you can, help no one below you, and try to finish the race with the largest purse.
One connection between the voices recorded of freed slaves and the history of the Reconstruction period, that really appalls me, is that of the Confiscation Act of 1812 (Davidson et. Al., pg. 478). 3 out 4 of the slave narratives I read talked about Yankee armies coming onto the plantations. They took what they wanted and burned or destroyed the rest. Sure they may have been “freeing the slaves” but they weren’t helping them in anyway. All 4 of the narrators spoke well of their masters, if they were to be freed their owners would have sent them on their way in a much better manner. Now, these freedmen were thrown out onto the streets with nothing, no food, no education, no home, and sometimes no parents. It really is no wonder most of them ended up working for next to nothing for other plantations, or similar previous owners. That was all they had; their hands to till the ground or make the bread. If the nation had handled this a little differently, things would have definitely turned out a lot better.
There is no way I can attest to the accuracy of the slave narratives provided in any anthology. I wasn’t there, and even if I was, I couldn’t have possibly been in all of their shoes. I know that many of the words I read didn’t sound like any slave story I ever heard. As a young white girl growing up in era plagued by white guilt, I heard the worst of the worst. The society around me made sure that I had nightmares of living on a plantation and watching my father strike a Negro because he looked at him wrong. My history textbooks made me believe that every slave owner abused and starved their slaves. The movies I watched caused me to wrench in guilt for sins that were not committed by me, or any of my ancestors.
The stories I read recently in the American Slaves Narratives: an online anthology, all except one, painted a portrait much different than the ones given to me during childhood. Some of the interviewees actually made life after slavery sound much worse. They respected their masters and mistresses, and talked very well of them. They all said they never went hungry, and were treated well. One even told a story of her master and mistress providing a wedding ceremony for her; cake, dress, and all, even a party with all the slaves attending (Tempe Herndon Dunham, quoted in Fort, 1996). My first instinct was, are these for real? But after reading several accounts, I realized that they probably are more real than anything I’ve ever read on the topic.
I also can’t put a tag on their value; however I can say that they are priceless. They are memories that would have otherwise been buried with the tellers. History that is taught in schools is so controlled and dominated by that same group of rich powerful white men that no one can really learn from it. History told by the people who lived it can bring light into otherwise shady areas. Allowing each story to fall on the ears of today’s students may bridge a widening gap between the races of America, and could possibly be the cure.