A Lesson in U.S. History

Though I have taught World History for many years now, this is the first year that I have taught US history.  This past November, I was teaching a unit about the events and conditions that led up to the Civil War, including the emergence of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party as the main opponents to the expansion of slavery in America.  One of my black students, Timothy, raised his hand looking confused.  “I don’t understand – how could Republicans be the party that was against slavery?  All my family are Democrats, and say that Republicans don’t want black people to vote!”  So my pre-planned lesson was put on hold as I was explained how the Democrats used to be the party of southern slave-owners and segregationists, while the Republicans were the party of abolitionists and reconstruction, and how all of that flipped during the Civil Rights era.  But even as I was explaining, it dawned on me how important it was to help Timothy and his fellow Verbum Dei gentlemen to understand the long journey of American history and how for people who looked like him, the United States has not always been a beacon of freedom or a city on a hill.

When I was in high school, my US history class never really dealt with reconstruction, segregation, Civil Rights, or any of the challenging history of racism in this country.  25 years ago, US history was mostly taught as one unbroken tale of triumph – where slavery was solved by the Civil War, and immigrants were always welcomed by Lady Liberty.  So now as a teacher at a school in Watts, California, I have to take up the challenge of teaching a more complete and complicated story of America – one of lights and shadows, freedom and oppression, shining ideals and infamous cruelty.  I have the duty to help our young men become faithful citizens of a country that is not always faithful to them.  I have the difficult task – and the great joy – of helping our gentlemen not only to know their rights, but also take responsibility for building a more just society for themselves, their children, and for all of us.

So at the beginning of this Black History month, blessings to you all.  May we all continue to learn and grow through greater awareness of our shared history of struggle, tragedy, and triumph.

Martin Luther King Jr. with Lyndon Johnson in 1966
Jackie Robinson with Richard Nixon in 1952

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