Sun. Nov 17th, 2019

Curriculum Wars and the Heroification of White Supremacy

The following is an edited summary of comments made previously during The Angela Project (2017) conference and were initially slated for publication in a subsequent journal. Given all that has occurred since, including my disagreements with the founders of “#ADOS” who had initially invited me to this conference, I suspect it is the comments I made – summarized below in the 2nd paragraph of the Conclusion – that began the end of that (and this?) relationship. In any event…

Schools and schooling in capitalist America are very little different from other institutions and their methodological processes in capitalist America. Institutions operate from a well-programmed blueprint, which is designed to serve the people in an unequal and hierarchical manner. To “serve the people” can be readily translated into “serve the devil.” The heinous nature of capitalist America gives easy rise to a feeling of existing in a living hell for the majority of the exploited. — Gloria Joseph

Introduction: An Early Start on The Function of Myth and Education

Being asked to comment on the “heroification” of White Supremacy in school curricula is really being asked to offer an analysis of just how and why such a project would be necessary. That is, in other words, the ask is that there be an explanation offered as to why there would be curriculum “wars” or a need teach, justify, propagate the notion of White superiority at all. Where else then but the issue of White settler colonialism could we begin? The country, the state itself, is a White settler colonial society meant from its uninterrupted “conceptual original sin” to be a place where White people (men mostly) could make money and live free from domination (at the hands of other White people) even if that requires imposing the same on a great many others. Schooling in this country, as in any, has forever been situated to explaining that reality so as to not encourage a critique or any significant adjustment in social relationships which may arise from appropriate criticism of the now. “Heroification” is myth-making and myths of origin are essential so societal cohesion and cohesion means adherence to ranges of thought, interpretation and ultimately behavior.

My family came up against this first-hand last year when my then public school 5th grader was told that introducing the recently published work of historian Gerald Horne would be inappropriate. First, we had to note that the teachers were not disputing the argument or claims made by Horne as presented via my daughter. No, the concerns were simply that the teachers were unfamiliar and would therefore narrow the requirements for presentations to the already predetermined, well-known traditional and common sense versions. C. Wright Mills was, once more, right that common sense is more “common than sense” (Mills, 402).  And here, secondly, is where the national myth of origin had come to suffer the light of day, Horne’s central thesis being that the so-called “revolution” of 1776 was, for the enslaved, a “counter-revolution,” one meant to defend the practice of enslaving Africans by claiming a struggle for freedom from slavery only for White colonists and only from the British. 

As Patricia Bradley has made clear, the “metaphor of slavery” as developed and petitioned by White colonial separatists was not meant as part of an abolitionist struggle but as a rallying call to arms against and freedom from the British. Enslavement of African people was to continue in perpetuity. The war of 1776, according to Horne, was largely about American colonists wanting to protect their primary economic engine while much of the remaining Western world was reorganizing its soon-to-be-former slaves into newly formed colonial subjects. But myths of liberty and freedom are more politically advantageous than realities which involve more Black people fighting against the British in 1776 (and again in 1812) than with the Americans. And for poorly informed public elementary school teachers the reality was simply untenable. I assured my daughter that she was getting an early start on learning the power of myth, propaganda and education and I reminded her that her sister was named after Bob Marley in part because of wisdom he shared like, “I have no education, only inspiration. If I was educated I’d be a damned fool.”  Perhaps it is adherence to these mythologies in public education that has led my daughters’ school district to be both considered among the best in the country while also, “…experiencing [a] resegregation that has transformed the core of Howard County over the past two decades…” (Green, 2017).

Colonialism and Propaganda

I mentioned that this is a White settler colonial state. I have argued previously and elsewhere that this analogy is not original and is often made in some form or fashion but is rarely, at this point, extended far enough as an analytical tool, particularly as it pertains African America. It stands to reason, however, that if understood as such, a settler colonial state, than the U.S. and its claims historically and today about “democracy” and “freedom” need far more scrutiny. Empires and settler states do not create citizens, they create slaves and subjects. Or, as Jack O’dell has explained: 

In defining the colonial problem it is the role of the institutional mechanisms of colonial domination which are decisive. Territory is merely the stage upon which these historically developed mechanisms of super-exploitation are organized into a system of oppression (Allen, 8).

This relationship of colonizer/colonized is what continues to drive the experience suffered by Black and other “Americans” but it is also true that where there are claims of democracy more effort has to be made to shape public opinion. As Noam Chomsky has said, “propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism” (Ashraf, Raman, 2010). So on the one hand, there remains the traditional function of colonial educational models that seek to separate previous cultural knowledge from the newly created subject, or as Ward Churchill has written, the goal is to “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” (2004).  Or there remains the need, as Donald Spivey once said of Industrial Education and its purpose for post-slavery Black America, that the “schoolhouse must replace the stability lost by the demise of the plantation” (1978, ix ).  On the other hand, propaganda, and in this case, myths of origin are of even greater importance when the subjects are told they are citizens, free and have equal opportunity.

Under a dictator my daughter would have simply known, been told or reminded that her attempted inquiry was inappropriate and ran counter to established and acceptable narrative. In the “land of the free,” in a “democracy,” she is simply – and politely – told that given the complete lack of knowledge of the subject among the teaching staff that they would just follow convention for the sake of brevity and ease. This is precisely how the most effective propaganda functions, beyond the scope of one’s immediate conscious recognition or why W.E.B. DuBois spoke once broadly of the “Propaganda of History,” (1935) the purpose of which was social, to manage public opinion and to develop a “caste… [the] inferior Negro… advertised…” so as to have that “inferiority… publicly acknowledged and submitted to…”

The essential nature of myth of origin to society, or put another way, as John Henrik Clarke said, “the relationship of history to a people is that of a mother to her child,” (Bourne, 1996) is why the world renown Sigmund Freud is discussed widely, save for his final book, Moses and Monotheism (1939).But it is here that he discusses the power, centrality and need of myths of origin to serve the higher purpose of managing public opinion and solidifying order within any society. Specifically, Freud wrote of his finally being able to break through the fear of the subject, that Judaism was indeed an African religion and that Moses, the quintessential hero figure was not, in fact, a Jew, but an African. Freud explained “that the man Moses, the liberator and lawgiver of the Jewish people, was not a Jew, but an Egyptian… he was an Egyptian whom a people needed to make into a Jew” (16, emphasis added).   It was famed journalist Walter Lippmann who wrote of the core need of Whites to negatively stereotype Black people in the press as a “self-defense mechanism,” saying that such was the “core of [a White elite] personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society” (63).

Further, any number of academics and activists from Amos Wilson to Assata Shakur to George Jackson have all warned against allowing political enemies to educate your children and many have noted, as had the late Ronald Walters, that eduction essential to plying the population and preparing them for a national set of public policies which he described simply as for the protection and in the interest of “White Nationalism”  (2003).  The late Derrick Bell, going a step further, described the broad set of public policies which institutionalize and organize the extraction of wealth, labor and resources from Black people while justifying that community’s denial of access to decent housing, healthcare, education and so on. Bell said of these policies that: 

If the nation’s policies towards blacks were revised to require weekly, random round-ups of several hundred blacks who were then taken to a secluded place and shot, that policy would be more dramatic, but hardly different in result, than the policies now in effect, which most of us feel powerless to change (806). 

Conclusion

Bell’s quote is essential here as it reminds of the colonial and, therefore, intentional nature of our arrangement and the outcomes we suffer. To put it another way, as John Taylor Gatto has asked, “What if there is no ‘problem’ with our schools?”  Our schools are functionaries of larger political goals and are producing precisely what is necessary. Whiteness must be valorized precisely by producing self-fulfilling narratives and mythologies with matching, concomitant or attendant anti-Black ones that pick up any remaining untrammeled slack. 

Our response can only be a collective and political movement that, as has been born out historically as necessary, must contain a particular internationalist approach as well. That is, Black communities cannot seek redress to issues of White supremacist educational narratives absent a political movement that seeks power over policy. This, and other domestic efforts like it, cannot be expected to advance absent international solidarity and external support. As has been exemplified by every major leader and movement produced in the United States by African descended people seeking liberty there have been calls for international solidarity and support. Enslaved Africans sought support from and were inspired by the Haitian Revolution. Abolitionists, suffragists, civil and human rights figures from Ida B. Wells to Dr. King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party have all seen their struggles as intimately connected to, in need of support from and even indebted to similar struggles, movements and individuals from around the world. 

Even today, currently, there are movements in the U.S. and the U.K. seeking the removal of White Supremacist figures, symbols and statues from their university campuses just as there are struggles in each place and elsewhere against police violence committed against Black people. Those are the symbols of nascent and rebuilding pan-African, internationalist struggles that need further development and unity if any of the multitude of issues facing Black people are to ever be organized out of existence. 

Bibliography

Allen, Robert, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.

Ashraf, Ajaz and Raman, Anuradha,  “Noam Chomsky interviewed for Outlook magazine,” Outlook magazine, November 1, 2010, retrieved online: https://chomsky.info/20101101/

Derrick Bell, “Great Expectations: Defining the Divide Between Blacks and Jews,” in Strangers and Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks and Jews in the United States, eds. Maurianne Adams and John H. Bracey, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1999.

Bourne, St. Clair, [Dir.], John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk, Black Dot Media, Toronto, Canada, 90 mins., 1996.

Bradley, Patricia, Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Churchill, Ward, Kill the Indian and Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, San Francisco: City Lights, 2004.

DuBois, W.E.B., Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880, New York: Touchstone, 1935.

Freud,  Sigmund , Moses and Monotheism, New York: Vintage Books, 1939.

Green, Erica, B. “Bridging the Divide: Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists,” Baltimore Sun, March 25, 2017, retrieved online: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/investigations/bs-md-school-segregation-series-howard-20170325-story.html

Horne, Gerald. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America . New York: New York University Press, 2014.

Lippmann, Walter, Public Opinion, New York: Free Press, 1921/1997.

Mills, C. Wright, The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University, 1959.

Spivey, Donald, Schooling for the New Slavery: Black Industrial Education, 1868–1915. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Walters, Ronald, White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

3 thoughts on “Curriculum Wars and the Heroification of White Supremacy

  1. Dr. Ball, thanks for providing your bibliography here. As much as appreciate your perspective and analysis, I feel equally honored to have references to enhance my own research. Most of this material I have not read (or even heard of), but I’m anxious to delve into it all. Thanks again.

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