6 of Your Childhood Heroes Who Kinda Sucked

When can we stop whitewashing history?

Artwork: © Carlyn Beccia | www.CarlynBeccia.com

It’s been said that history is written by the victors. But often, history is written by those with the most feel-good story. George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Columbus discovered America, and Andrew Jackson wasn’t a genocidal maniac. We want to believe our childhood heroes are gilded in gold.

But this watered-down version of the past becomes more than just optimistic. It is misleading at its best and blatantly wrong at its worst.

According to the first-ever nationwide survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 23% of American Millenials and Gen Z (ages 18–39) believe the Holocaust was a myth or has been exaggerated. How did that happen?

The illiteracy surrounding the Civil War is equally as alarming. When The Pew Research Center asked respondents under the age of thirty why the Civil War was fought, 60% said “states rights,” and not “slavery.”

How did we fail our students? And what do we accomplish by whitewashing over the grim side of history?

Personally, I prefer real, meaty history and not the sugarcoated version. So here are a few of your childhood heroes who are valorized in textbooks when in reality…they kinda sucked.

Thomas Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale, 1791 | Public Domain

Thomas Jefferson

In a famous SNL skit, the founding fathers are smoking cigars and drinking port while watching Jefferson hit on his slave, Sally Hemings. At one point, Thomas Jefferson, played by Robert De Niro, smarmily asks Sally, “When do you get off work?”

Her reply — “Ah, never.”

In many history books, Hemings has been referred to as Jefferson’s “mistress,” but that word is a gross misrepresentation of their relationship. Women who had no legal or social standing were referred to as “concubines,” not mistresses.

Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings, four of whom survived and became Jefferson’s many African American descendants. (Their sexual relations began when she was just fourteen.)

In 2017, excavators began poking around at Jefferson’s Monticello recidence. They found something sinister.

Hemings’s room wasn’t located in the slave quarters. It was adjacent to Jefferson’s room.

Although Jefferson’s treatment of Sally has become a taboo topic today, everyone in Jefferson’s day knew he kept Sally “in a room of her own” at Monticello. Yet still, historians continue to bicker about whether their relationship was consensual. This is a nonstarter. Enslaved women had no legal rights, so Sally could not refuse him without serious repercussions. (Remember she had children to protect.)

Either way, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence continues to remain a contradictory figure in American history, mostly because…Thomas Jefferson kinda sucked.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) | Public Domain

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Many of us were probably taught in school about the fearless crusade of female white suffragettes, but the truth is far more complicated. Many of these women built the ladder rung by rung that led to the nineteenth amendment. And then…they pulled that ladder up behind them, refusing to acknowledge the rights of Blacks.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton made huge strides for women’s suffrage. She worked tirelessly for women’s property rights, birth control, equal opportunity employment, custody rights and was an outspoken abolitionist.

She should be honored for these accomplishments. But when Black men got the right to vote before the suffragettes, Stanton was pissed. She refused to stand aside and “see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”

Oh, it gets worse. She further degraded Black men by proclaiming they “wouldn’t know a ballot from an order for a mule.”

It’s a shame her comments have marred her legacy because she did so much for the suffrage movement, but…she also kinda sucked.

Margaret Sanger, 1879 | Public Domain

Margaret Sanger

“Quality, not quantity” is a great maxim to live by if you are describing your circle of friends. It’s not so great when you use it to determine who should be allowed to procreate.

Sanger is best remembered for her tireless fight to bring birth control (a word she coined) to women. Her decades of activism led to union rights for laborers and the founding of Planned Parenthood.

But Sanger had so many despicable prejudiced views that it’s hard to untangle where her activism ended and her racism began.

Like many 1920s activists, Sanger supported the early eugenics movement — a pseudoscience aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race through forced sterilization and birth control.

Removing the “unfit” became the backbone of eugenics. The unfit included the mentally and physically disabled, people with epilepsy, prostitutes, drug addicts, illiterates, the unemployed, and many Black women. (Over 70,000 Americans were victims of forced sterilization.) Sanger’s views were clear; “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”

Some historians argue that Sanger was enamored with eugenics because it aligned with her views that women should decide when they were ready to have children. Unfortunately, she also believed Black women were less equipped to make that decision.

In 2020, amongst a storm of controversy, Planned Parenthood finally removed Sanger’s name from their flagship clinic in New York City.

Sanger’s feminist accomplishments cannot be erased. But those accomplishments should also be framed within her horrible and inhumane views that did not support ALL women.

And for those narrowminded views…Margaret Sanger kinda sucked.

Helen Keller portrait, 1904, | Public Domain

Helen Keller

Helen Keller is undoubtedly an inspiration to anyone who has had to overcome physical hardships. She was the first deaf and blind person to receive an undergraduate degree, and she even authored twelve books.

She established a universal braille system, supported women’s right to vote, and was the founder of Helen Keller International — an organization devoted to supporting women’s health and nutrition. She also gave considerable donations to the NAACP — a dangerous act for an Alabama white woman in the 1920s.

These accomplishments should not be dismissed. But we also should not lose the real person behind the myth.

Keller was a radical socialist who ended up on J. Edgar Hoover’s most wanted list (but so did everyone.) Unfortunately, her communist leanings were not her greatest misstep.

By 1915, the American eugenics movement was in full swing, and Keller was one of its biggest fans. During this year, Dr. Harry Haiselden refused to perform a life-saving operation on a baby born with severe paralysis. Keller supported Haiselden’s actions and publicly stated that the baby’s life was “not worthwhile.”

Yep. Kill the disabled babies.

She then used her celebrity status to advocate for a jury of physicians to determine which baby’s lives were worth saving and which were not.

It might seem incongruent that a deaf and blind person believed other disabled children were a burden on society that should be exterminated. But humans often project their own shame onto others.

And for her discrimination against the disabled…Hellen Keller kinda sucked.

Portrait of Henry Ford, 1919 | Public Domain

Henry Ford

The world owes a debt of gratitude for Henry Ford’s first mass-produced automobiles. By revolutionizing assembly-line production, cars (and our favorite toys) became accessible and affordable to all Americans. Unless you can build a computer in your garage, you probably wouldn’t even be reading this article if it was not for Henry Ford.

But as Ford was trying to modernize America, he also wanted to revive some old-timey pastimes, like square dancing, unpasteurized milk, and…bashing Jews.

In 1920, Ford founded The Dearborn Independent and distributed ninety-one issues to over half a million people. The paper had one mission — to ignite Americans' anti-semitic fears.

In his newspaper, Ford described the “International Jew” as the “world’s foremost problem.” Wow. Jews beat out poverty, the 1918 flu pandemic, WWI, and the arms race. Now that is some serious hatred.

Ford may have brought cars to the public on a mass scale, but he also tried to elevate anti-semitism on a mass scale. And for those efforts…Henry Ford kinda sucked.

Bust of Aristotle, 330 BC | Public Domain

Aristotle

Aristotle has been described as the world’s most influential thinker, the founder of ethics, and the inventor of formal logic.

Aristotle may have had some profound thoughts regarding philosophy and science, but he had some hateful, dichotomous views on women. He said, “the courage of a man lies in commanding, a woman’s lies in obeying.” He taught his students that women are a subpar inferior species who have fewer teeth than men.

And that was just Aristotle getting warmed up…

Aristotle couldn’t have had much luck with the ladies. In his History of Animals, Book IX, he describes women as “more readily made to weep” and “subject to depression.” He then warns his fellow patriarchal buddies that women are “shameless,” “false,” and “idle.” He sounds like he is describing one of The Real Housewives.

Now, you could argue that Aristotle was merely mirroring societal beliefs. But that’s exactly why we shouldn’t whitewash over his blatant sexism. We should remember that some of the brightest minds had some horribly misogynistic views.

And for these destructive and sexist views...Aristotle kinda sucked.

As a children’s book author, if I come across something in someone’s biography that is controversial, I am usually told to take it out. Not by all publishers, but by far too many. I really wish we didn’t teach history this way.

Kids deserve better.

The people I choose to write about are often as imperfect as their imperfect world. Sometimes those flaws are great enough to distinguish the light of their accomplishments. And sometimes their flaws only chip a little shine off their veneer.

But for children to strengthen their critical thinking skills, they must understand that their heroes are never black and white.

Children don’t need to stand on the shoulders of perfect giants. But they do need them to be real.

Author & illustrator. Editor of The Grim Historian. My latest books — MONSTROUS: THE LORE, GORE, & SCIENCE and THEY LOST THEIR HEADS. Contact: CarlynBeccia.com

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