I am almost at the end of semester 2 of my new Thematic US History class. Teaching this has been such an incredible experience - not only have I learned an enormous amount, but the students I have had the good fortune to work with have been very receptive. This last "big question," that we are tracing through US history is about change. Specifically, the question is: how have Americans worked to bring about political and social change?
The United States, of course, was built on a rebellion. Author Jill Lepore asks in her book These Truths: A History of the United States if "A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism..." Maybe we, as the US, are destined to always push and pull for what we believe is the right way to be America?
We started this exploration of the "big question" with a modern situation, and the way that both Black Lives Matter and the alt-right use social media to accomplish their goals. Then, we read some of Thomas Paine's Common Sense. It was early viral social media at its best. Next we looked at how enslaved people used every means possible to push back against that system of oppression. Today, we talked about a different sort of push for social and political change: the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
How did the UDC hope to bring about change, which in their mind was the US going to wrong direction in terms of the Confederacy? They took control of the narrative. They built statues, they wrote textbooks, they brought children together to repeat "facts," they installed pictures and flags in schools, they created and stocked museums and libraries, and more. Some of those statues have since come down. During the summer of 2020, the US began to take small steps to undo that control of the narrative inaugurated by the UDC at their formation in 1884. But a headline from last week shows that we are not done yet, as Mississippi governor Tate Reeves (once again) proclaimed April to be Confederate Heritage Month.
When we study history, sometimes we see change, sometimes we see continuity; sometimes we see progress, sometimes we see decline. Most importantly, studying history is not about memorizing the past. Studying history is about understanding the present.