We The People: An American History Primer

The Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

[excerpt: http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/index.htm ]

The Preamble of the United States Constitution reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

[excerpt: http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.preamble.html%5D

I read all these esteemed historical documents in American history and wonder what exactly these “American values” are.  In my History AP class in high school, I learned about ‘manifest destiny’ and the rugged individualism of the ‘American’ pioneers.  The American history I learned was given a white-washed veneer.  The ‘American-ness’ of westward expansion was ‘divinely sanctioned’ and oh so… White.  The face of America was a White man… just look at Mount Rushmore!

Yes, the westward expansion necessitated, in the eyes of our presidents, the implementation of policies specifically for dealing with indigenous peoples.  And yes, these policies resulted in death, illness, dispossession, cultural shift and erasure, assimilationist policies that destroyed the family unit and the establishment of reservations that shrank by the decade.  I am the descendant of one of those ‘poor Indians’ you see depicted in Robert Lindneux’s 1942 painting, The Trail of Tears.

Robert Lindneuxs The Trail of Tears
Robert Lindneux's 'The Trail of Tears'

And the irony that struck me hardest was that the authors and signers of the Declaration of Independence would likely be the same men who would oppose the Emancipation Proclamation 87 years later.  Cut from the same fabric- land-owners, farmers, most of whom professed to espouse what would be coined ‘the Jeffersonian ideal.’  The same men who signed the Declaration, declaring the Colonies’ independence from Great Britain were the same men who bought and sold African men, women and children like chattel.  While crying ‘Liberty!’ these men enslaved a race many had deemed sub-human by way of polygenetic theories and faulty theology.  And let’s not forget that President Abraham Lincoln FREED THE (passive, unassuming, helpless) SLAVES.  *sarcasm… if you didn’t notice*

And yet, in the rote curriculum, history is presented as driven forth by the actions and ideas of White men.  From the valorous men (implicitly White) who fought for nascent America’s freedom from the tyranny of ‘taxation without representation’ to the martyred White men who publicly stood up and supported Civil Rights for African-Americans, the history I heard in school was overwhelmingly driven by White men.

Of course, White women entered stage left when they fought for abolition (despite, or in spite of their thinly veiled disgust for Blacks), and once Blacks were freed and their men granted suffrage in February 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment- history tells us that White women valiantly fought for their own suffrage.  We hear little of the Black suffragettes like Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terell, and Ida B. Wells (there are countless others).

Oh, you know Hispanic people play a peripheral role to American history- “Remember the Alamo!” and villify the Mexican for defending their territory.  And we can thank cheap migrant labor for keeping the costs of our produce so artificially low :) (in addition to the use of chemicals that have been proven to be harmful to human immune systems).  Oh, and in waging a War on Drugs, we can impose middle-class values onto the poor/working class, criminalizing immigrants, and necessitating the funneling of drugs via other channels (think: Colombian drug cartels!)

Of course, people of Asian-descent did not enter the stage until the siren call of sugar cane in what would become the state of Hawaii brought corporations and drew the President’s interest.  Asians re-appeared as the “yellow horde” that dared to seek better pastures in America.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, made federal law with President Arthur’s signature suspended immigration into the United States from the continent of Asia.  In light of the perceived scarcity of gold in California in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, and increased competition for employment in the state of California, xenophobic and ultranationalistic fervor abounded.  Sixty years pass by, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, empowering local military officers to designate “military areas”/”exclusion areas” for the internment of Japanese- descended peoples in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.  By now, Time magazine has seen fit to publish a detailed article entitled, “How to tell your Friends from the Japs.”

Time Magazine, December 22, 1941 How to tell your friends from the Japs
Time Magazine, December 22, 1941 "How to tell your friends from the Japs"

Oh, by now, the American Indian has vanished, riding into the horizon with a papoose on his back, frozen in time, a relic of the past.  Any survivors have been assimilated, or relegated to the mystical, noble savage who cries at the ravages wrought against nature by industry and capitalism (while inexplicably wearing ‘Indian’ clothing in the late 1970’s).  Never mind the fact that Indigenous American women are the most likely to be raped out of all women in America, and that their rapes are largely inter-racial (most committed by White and Black males), when the trend is the opposite for other groups (intra-racial).  And let’s not forget that indigenous Americans are the most impoverished ethnic group in the United States.

People of middle-eastern descent made their mark on American history on September 11th… am I right?  Before that, we only knew of the Islamic extremists who sanctioned female genital mutilation (the same procedure/practice that offends so many Western feminist temperaments!) and the oppression of women.

I say all this to make the case that American history as it is taught, is largely exclusive and monochromatic.  This is why Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Asian-American Studies departments at the University level are so crucial.  The erasure of people of color in Ameican history is dangerously short-sighted in a society that is becoming more and more multi-cultural, changing the racial/ethnic composition of America’s inhabitants.  Much of early 20th century historiography was produced by privileged White males who had greater access to inherited wealth and higher education.  As higher education is ingrained and embedded into our collective psyches as a means of social and economic uplift, as more and more of us attend universities, we need to challenge the status quo.  We go through life learning the rote and widely accepted histories, while the subaltern histories are silenced and pushed aside.

[and no, I do not hate White men… dunno how many times this charge has been leveled against me.]

[and no,  pointing these things out does not mean that I am un-patriotic or un-American.]

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