Protesters gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Explaining Today

How our embattled present heightens the need and hunger for historical understanding


Long after the smoke has cleared from last week’s protests, long after the headlines have been replaced with new ones, teachers will have to explain what these events mean, just as they must explain every step of our past. That is lonely work, vulnerable work, critical work.

The protests of police brutality are among the largest and most widespread in American history. They are also the most thoroughly filmed, reported, and analyzed, echoing with the history of slavery, segregation, and lynching. The protests present teachers with a great opportunity and a heavy burden, for we build on weak foundations.

The task of explaining today is made harder by the way we teach about before today, by the constraints of state standards and curricula. We introduce students to American history with evasion at its heart. We teach triumph but not the evil that gives the triumph its meaning. Among the first great Americans to which students are introduced are Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Students learn early that Mrs. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and that Dr. King had a dream. But why should Mrs. Parks have sat at the back of the bus in the first place? And why did Dr. King invoke a dream of a day so distant, for his children rather than for himself? We present heroes but few villains. We explain the victory but not the struggle. We show that, once again, progress lies at the heart of American history.

As the grades progress, we tell them more. Sometimes the enemy is simply “Jim Crow,” a system of racist laws that came out of dark places and unnamed evil people in the southern past. The most powerful evocations of Jim Crow appear in pictures, pictures of black children entering school or young black people at lunch counters, surrounded by furious, contemptuous white people radiating violence. The villains seem obvious: white men in crew cuts and white women in old-fashioned hairdos and dresses, politicians with oily hair and accents.

Students see no pictures of the landlords, bankers, and CEOs who preyed on black Americans with unhealthy housing, high rents, and low wages. They see no photos inside mayors’ offices and police stations, chambers of commerce and board rooms, rental agencies and hiring departments. Nothing we teach them about the past would lead them to expect great wrongs, or great protests, in Minneapolis or Buffalo. And the chronology is just as confusing as the geography. We portray injustice in a few disconnected periods: Reconstruction skips to Jim Crow which skips to the 1950s and ends after the 1960s.

Most students will gain little sense from their history classes of how wrongs have multiplied, accrued over time, how slavery destroyed wealth that people’s labor should have secured — a profound theft. Students will not learn how the failure to protect freed people in the wake of slavery kept them from building the political and economic power they should have had. They will not learn how the limitations placed on the opportunities so desperately sought through the Great Migration kept families from building secure lives in their new homes, how the poverty created by the concentration of public housing translated directly into lower tax bases for schools, how the trauma concentrated in high-poverty housing projects exacted costs on children before they had a chance to get a start in life.

We give students little opportunity to learn how the evils of racial injustice have — like a virus — adapted across space and time to drive segregation, to impose disfranchisement, to justify mass incarceration for victimless crimes, to craft legal, supposedly race-neutral policies that leave America more segregated today than ever before, to refuse health care, to neglect our public schools, and, yes, to permit and even encourage police brutality. We do not know how to teach them that racial inequality is not simply an anachronism, a hold-over, an attitude out of place in the present. We cannot explain how injustice can be used by people who seek political power, economic advantage, or simple self-glorification.

If we are going to explain these things in these ways, we will have to look beyond individual villains, beyond the segregated South, and beyond the 1950s and early 1960s. We must show continuities and change in ways that biographical cameos cannot. To tie time and space together, we will need to rely on means other than words and pictures.

Students need ways to gain a sense of proportion and scale, of change and stagnation. Maps of the forced migration of enslaved people shows students that slavery was not simply black people standing in cotton fields, as textbooks so often show, but involved the sorting, pricing, insuring, inspecting, shipping, and selling of a million American people. Maps of redlining and urban renewal show racism in action and in consequence, as every city in the United States embedded injustice into their very foundations, as cities of all sizes plowed under generations of black wealth-building. Maps of congressional voting shows that white racial identity sustained the Democratic party for decade after decade and then became the tool of the Republican party. The familiar sequence of the Civil Rights movement looks different when we expand its chronology and geography. The Red Summer of 1919 and the struggle of Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1951 demonstrate that inequity had bred protest far before Rosa Parks and far from Alabama.

Public history has done work that is harder to do in schools. The decision to remove the statues in Virginia, where I live and where I served on the Monument Avenue Commission, demonstrates how the ongoing work of historians can focus calls for change. For over a decade, many of us had talked about the Confederate monuments that appear throughout the state, most prominently on Monument Avenue in Richmond. We revealed the histories of those statues and the racial work they performed under the guise of military garb. We called on the city to explain all the monuments and to remove the most prominent statue over which it had control, of Jefferson Davis.

The process of learning the history of the monuments and discussing it in public was heartening, if sometimes tense. Events moved the conversation forward in jolts. The Monument Avenue Commission confronted neo-Confederate protesters brandishing signs that read “No Context, No Compromise,” at its first mass meeting in Richmond in 2017, but the deadly conflict in Charlottesville days later made “context” — explanations of who put up the statues and what they meant — seem reasonable to many and inadequate to others. Our report met with warm response from local and national newspapers, but we had to wait for a new General Assembly to permit the city to act. Soon after the Democrats won control of the legislature, they voted to allow localities to deal with Confederate statues as each community thought appropriate.

None of that mattered, of course, without the mass protests in the streets of Richmond. Critics of the Commission had claimed that the black people of the city did not really care about the statues and did not see them as monuments to white supremacy. The protests immediately proved just how wrong that claim was. The Robert E. Lee monument became an anchor for the protests, a gathering place, a billboard for people to add their own “context” all around the base of the towering structure.

Virginia’s governor, thanks to the years of conversation before, offered, virtually overnight, a powerful rationale for why the monuments must be removed. The evidence-based, reasoned, and historical interpretation put forward by the Monument Avenue Commission allowed decisions to be made more quickly than they would have otherwise. The widespread public discussion of the statues had inclined reluctant citizens toward altering or removing the statues in ways they had not considered only months before.

The discussion, too, made its way into classrooms. The public debate helped young people see that the monuments symbolized a present and painful history, not a gauzy and celebratory one safely in the past. They learned that the statues had not merely appeared as a natural outgrowth of the Civil War but had been put up decades later to help buttress white supremacy, without the participation — and often with the opposition of — black people.

The lessons are clear: If we are going to explain today, and lay the foundations for movements for further social justice, we must provide our students a fuller history of racial injustice and the fight against that injustice. Our embattled present heightens the need and hunger for historical understanding. But that need is always present, the opportunity to connect yesterday and today is always urgent. As history teachers know, the past and the future are always more interconnected than they seem.

Learn more about New American History.



Ed Ayers
New American History

Ed Ayers is a historian and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.