Alternatively Titled: This Country was Built on the Backs of Slaves
There are many things I love about our annual class trip to Washington, DC: the symbolism of the monuments, the architecture, the gorgeous photographs in the Museum of Natural History, the naive idealism that used to be politics, evident in the video presentation preceding the tour of the Capitol Building...
But in the last couple years, I've been more and more bothered by the conspicuous absence of any worthwhile discussion of the real "founding" of America.
There is brief talk of slavery when we visit Mount Vernon and explore the slave quarters, but it does not come up again on the trip. I don't know how to explain what I'm feeling here...Slavery is covered so superficially and in such a way that the reputation of the Founding Fathers is protected. I don't want our 13-year-old students to hear graphic details of slave auctions and rape and abuse but I wish they could hear some objective truth to clarify that these men were flawed human beings, not omniscient gods, not mythical, untouchable legends, and we should take care not to idolize people.
But it seems that any sort of criticism makes one unpatriotic...and apparently that is the worst thing you could be.
There is a profound discomfort as our guide tells us to look left and right at various buildings as we drive by but remains silent as we pass the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, drawing no attention to it.
There is no mention at all of the genocide that had to be orchestrated to allow us to live in this country today. Portraits and statues suggest that Indigenous peoples were eager to give up their land and their homes for the sake of white colonialism.
Our guides overuse "these men died for your freedom" at memorials until it loses all meaning. I want to experience a tour that doesn't glorify the darkest parts of American history while whitewashing them at the same time.
All of this makes me incredibly uncomfortable. The reverence for the Founding Fathers borders on fanatical at times, and their shortcomings are dismissed because "well, that was normal for the time period." It is not normal for us, and giving them a pass normalizes racism and sexism, as if there was once an acceptable time to curtail rights and own human beings.
I wish our tours were more honest about our history. I wish we had a chance to see diverse monuments that pay homage to the people who toiled against their will so we could live here as we do.
America did not spring up in a vacuum. It was not manifest destiny. People were murdered to secure our place on this land. The country was built through slave labor in the most literal sense of the phrase. And here we are, reaping the benefits, and barely sparing a moment to acknowledge from whence we came.
This is "our country". We feel that we own it. We take pride in it. (Sometimes.) We feel patriotic toward it. (Maybe.) But this blinkered nationalism...It has always made my skin crawl, and it seems to get worse every year.
I think this trip is valuable, but I just can't help but feel we're missing an opportunity to deepen the lesson and explore crucial complexities that would help our students develop compassion alongside national pride. Would it kill us to inject a little honesty into our history lessons?