Which was the reason the south seceded from the union, a test asked 1000 high schoolers: To preserve states’ rights, to preserve slavery, to protest taxes on imported goods or to avoid rapid industrialization? While nearly half chose to protest taxes, only 8% chose the correct answer, to protect slavery. And only a third identified the 13th amendment as the law that officially ended slavery. The test was given as part of a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project. Their report entitled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, concluded that when it comes to teaching slavery the nation needs an intervention. School districts, teachers, textbooks, all need to better address it. Part of their study however found that a key reason was that teachers were uncomfortable teaching the subject, particularly when there was little support from schools and from the textbooks they were using.
In the report’s preface, Hassan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board, writes about slavery, “It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.” It is easy to add that indeed these are truths hard to read about and discover. Nevertheless they are part of history, part of American history. While I can understand the discomforts and difficult task of those teaching the history of slavery, I wonder if those discomforts do not reflect those of the society. And if they do, do they not fuel the racial divide?