Upset by “Critical Race Theory?” Learn How To Manage Your Own Feelings
I’m a distant descendant of the Revolutionary War hero, Nathaniel Greene, and his wife, Cathrine Littlefield Greene. Not directly. The Greene family and Null family intermarried at some point, so the Greenes are a great, great, great, great (however many generations) uncle and aunt.
Growing up, we saw the statue of Nathaniel Greene (representing Rhode Island) in the Congressional Hall of Statues. I was told how he helped us beat the British and helped our country win the Revolutionary War. I learned he had often paid for uniforms or pay for the troops out of his own funds when the nascent federal government didn’t come through. He nearly bankrupted himself and sacrificed much of his health.
All in the name of freedom.
My father told me that they were rewarded with a plantation in the south that was seized from a Tory, as a reward for his heroism and financial sacrifices. I’d thought it must have been odd for a couple of northerners to suddenly find themselves on a plantation.
Then, in the mid-2000's, I was participating in a teacher training with the South Coast Writing Project, where I was a PhD student in Education at U.C. Santa Barbara. A Latinx colleague and I were paired together and — at random — told to research Nathaniel Greene.
“Oh, I think I’m related to him,” I said.
Then we started reading about how, after the Revolutionary War, they had moved to the Mulberry Grove Plantation, just outside of Savannah, Georgia. Although Nathaniel Greene died of heatstroke a shortly after they moved there, his wife, Catherine Littlefield Greene, continued to run the plantation. She hired the inventor Eli Whitney to tutor her five children, which supported him as he invented the cotton gin. Some people even say the plans for the machine came from her, but that the patent was under his name.
“Oh,” I mumbled as my colleague and I were reading. “Um, cool.”
As the incriminating facts continued to pile up, I added, “Yeah, um, great.”
Yep, not only did some of my ancestors own slaves, but they actually assisted with the invention of the machine that made slavery profitable and helped perpetuate slavery for another 60 years.
My colleague nodded graciously. She didn’t say anything, because what is there to say to that?
Did it make me feel good to learn these unsavory facts about my ancestors?
Was it necessary for me to learn this? Yes.
And I’m not gonna lie. Learning this as part of a professional development, with a colleague who is a person of color, was even less fun. But when we learn hard truths, we don’t always get to choose the ideal context.
Even after that, I’d believed that the Greenes must have ended up on the plantation only because it had been given to them. People from Rhode Island didn’t own slaves, right? People who literally sacrifice everything they have for freedom wouldn’t do that while having slaves, right?
Nope. I was wrong again.
After hearing Laurie Halse Anderson present to the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators about her extensive process for researching her trilogy about the Revolutionary War, “Chains,” “Forge,” and “Ashes,” I got interested and listened to the books as I was driving around my remote corner of the southwest.
There it was in “Forge,” which is told from the point of view of a teenage escaped slave who fights for the Yankees in the Revolutionary War. Although the book is fictional, it includes interactions with a few actual historical figures, including Nathaniel Greene and Cathrine Littlefield Greene.
They had owned slaves even as they were stationed at Valley Forge, scraping through the harsh winter in their fight for freedom. In fact, as Anderson had clarified to us in her presentations, slavery was common in all 13 colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War — including in Rhode Island.
I knew better than to think Anderson was making this up just to drive the plot. The Greene’s ownership of slaves wasn’t even central to the plot. Also, after hearing her present, I trusted her as a researcher.
Was it fun to learn this?
No. In fact it felt like a knife to the heart.
Is it necessary for me to know this? Yes.
It blows my mind that someone could sacrifice everything for freedom — while owning slaves.
It’s strange that while I was growing up, I was told about his heroism but never learned this part of the story. Frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing.
But if learning this was hard for me, that’s all about my ego. Coming to terms with that is something I need to do. It’s not Anderson’s job or the job of person who put together the teacher training at U.C.S.B. to prevent exposing me to anything that might not feel positive to me or to my family. It isn’t the job of librarians for stocking the books in their libraries, or of teachers for teaching historical facts about slavery.
It’s my job to manage my own feelings about our country’s history and my own family’s role.
How are we supposed to move forward as a country if we can’t even talk about how many of our founders — including the ones from the North — owned slaves?
Having a fuller understanding of history and of my family background gives me a more nuanced view of who I am, who we are as a country, of what we’ve accomplished, and of the work we still have to do.
On my more optimistic days, I think that our country’s founders at least had the ideal of freedom and equality — even if they applied it imperfectly and left out many people — people of color, slaves, women, and people who weren’t landowners.
But it’s also hard to ignore assertions from authors like Ibram X. Kendi that this country was created with racism and inequality woven into its fabric.
Maybe this isn’t an either/or, but a “both, and.” We’re all still wrestling with the inherent contradiction of what “freedom” and “equality” mean within a country that defined slaves as 3/5 of a person in its Constitution. Working through that legacy and building the country that many of the people who fought and died for freedom back in the late 1700’s envisioned is one of the challenges we all face now.
We can’t move forward if we don’t fully understand our past.
Going back to my family history, some of the Stauffers on my Mom’s side of the family in Pennsylvania hid people seeking freedom in their attic, as part of the Underground Railroad. Not that doing that is too special — letting people trying to escape from slavery sleep in your attic for the night kind of seems like the LEAST you could do.
But to me, personally, this is what it means to be a white person in the U.S. I know that both sides are in me — those that did something to oppose evil, and those who worked to perpetuate it. Like my ancestors, I can make choices about how I respond to continued inequality and injustice.
Probably many of us have elements of our family histories that we’re not proud of, if we go back far enough. We probably also have examples of people who stood up and did the right thing, even when that meant taking a risk or suffering negative consequences. Maybe knowing we have both sides within our histories — and within us — is what it means to be human.
Instead of feeling oppressed or traumatized by learning about the horrible aspects of my family history, I feel enriched. It has given me a better understanding of who I am and of what our country is.
It has given me a better understanding of my choices. It has given me a better understanding of which side of history I want to stand on.