Penny Smith

Guest Columnist - Smith

I don’t know how to address our national history without talking about the role systemic racism plays in it. The United States was built upon the principle of exclusivity. We came late to the diversity dance.

How else can one explain the demonization of people already living here? For centuries our approach to Native Americans was inclusion (become as much like western Europeans as possible), exclusion (banishment to lands white settlers did not want), or extinction. The wages of those sins fell not on whites, but on groups whites persecuted.

That’s also true about our treatment of African Americans. During their first years here they had the status of indentured servants, a category into which poor white immigrants also fit. Within a generation they were servants for life, as were their progeny. Like white women, most black men and women were legally chattel. As property their lives depended on hope: Hope that the master was kind or the husband not abusive.

Human beings evolved as tribal animals; they defend their people and mistrust others. It’s built into our DNA. We’re a species given to finding scapegoats, most of whom are outsiders, are people “from off.” Why else have we built serial untruths about other people? No Irish need apply. Italians are mobsters; Muslims, terrorists. Asians spread disease. We are imperfect beings, prone to wrapping ourselves in the comfort of the familiar and blaming our troubles on someone else. Only experience and education seem able to challenge that tendency.

So, naturally, when I asked my students to look at our national history, I tried to ensure they looked at all of it, not simply the pieces that make us proud or comfortable. For example, in the fiction I asked some classes to read, we grabbled with sexual prejudice (“The Scarlet Letter”), antebellum racism (“Huck Finn”), the inglorious aspects of war (“The Red Badge of Courage”), vigilantism (“The Ox-Bow Incident”), the inequities of class and consequences of classism (“The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath”), our awesome and terrible ability to kill one another (“Hiroshima”), and 20th-century prejudices (“The Worn Path” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”).

And I made sure that in addition to celebrating the achievements of people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, my students also knew their blind spots. I wanted them to learn about Ida B. Wells as well as John C. Calhoun, about W.E.B. DuBois as well as George Wallace, about Eugene Debs as well as Joseph McCarthy, about Sequoyah as well as Andrew Jackson. Young people, in order to understand who they are and what the country in which they live represents and can be, deserve the entire story, not a sanitized slice of it. If we are to become what we aspire to be, we need to know the roads we took that were detours, dead ends or led to human tragedies.

I am appalled that we are even debating the persistence of racial, sexual and class prejudice in the 21st-century. It has existed and continues to exist here. I am equally appalled that we are questioning the necessity of addressing the tough questions of our past, at the same time we talk about what makes the United States a special place. Why are we so afraid of truth? I’m grateful to be an American, but I’m also honest enough to admit I’m not proud of many moments in our past. We grow only when we face our fears, improve as a nation only when we confront our errors. Yet, as current events make clear, we are prone to avert our eyes.

Penny Smith lives in Dillsboro. While teaching at Asheboro High School, she was chosen the 1981 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.