I have spent 50 years teaching college students from coast to coast and points in between, and while much has changed over the course of those 50 years, one thing has remained unchanged: the students’ abysmal ignorance of the negative side of American history.
That disturbing reality slapped me across the face anew when, just a few days ago, I asked a first-year honors class how many had heard of the Japanese internment camps. The reason for my question was the book that serves as the common reader for this year’s entire group of first-year students — George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy.
The young people in my class are all high-achieving honors students. Racially diverse, they hail from many parts of the United States — Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Texas, California, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
Given their honors status, coupled with their racial and geographic diversity, I surmised that at least some of them would know that, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up 126,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, and incarcerated them in “relocation” camps, often hastily built in desolate regions of the country and always ringed with barbed wire and guarded by federal troops.
The government gave these citizens only a single week to report to detention centers, forced them to abandon their homes and businesses, and allowed them to take to the incarceration camps only what they could carry in their hands. They remained imprisoned in these desolate camps until near the end of World War II.
I thought surely some of my students would know this story. But I was wrong. Not a single student knew anything at all about this tragic chapter in our nation’s history.
But why should I be surprised? We witness every day this same reluctance to acknowledge our nation’s crimes.
We resist “The 1619 Project” since it tells us what we do not wish to hear — the truth about the scope and brutality of American slavery and how the scourge of slavery still defines the American nation.
We resist Critical Race Theory since it suggests that racism and white supremacy are deeply imbedded in the structures of American culture.
We resist any account that might make white people — and especially white children — feel guilty or uncomfortable in their own white skin.
In fact, we habitually resist doing the one thing that might bring healing to a badly fractured nation — telling the truth about race, about our biases and about ourselves. Instead, we resort to conspiracy theories, shifting the blame from ourselves to some mysterious “other.”
“Why such ferocious resistance to the truth about who we have been and still are today?”
The question that begs for an answer is, why? Why such ferocious resistance to the truth about who we have been and still are today?
The answer to that question is rooted in the myths that white Americans have told about themselves from the time of the nation’s birth.
We have told ourselves that ours is “a chosen nation,” singled out by God for the noble mission of bearing the torch of freedom around the globe.
We have told ourselves that the United States is “nature’s nation,” fully in sync with the natural order and “the way things are meant to be.”
And until very recently, we have told ourselves that ours is “a Christian nation,” conformed to the virtues taught by the Christian faith.
Those three myths, taken together, have helped sustain the most pernicious myth of all — the notion that the United States is a wholly innocent nation. And it is that deeply rooted sense of American innocence that prevents us from telling the truth about the Japanese internment camps or the utter brutality of American slavery or the dehumanization wrought by racial segregation or the persistence of systemic racism in American life or the the near-extermination of the native people who lived on this land long before the Europeans arrived.
“One feature of the American sense of innocence is the way it divides so neatly along racial lines.”
One feature of the American sense of innocence is the way it divides so neatly along racial lines. Whites, for the most part, always have assumed the reality of American innocence. And “assume” is the operative word. Most whites seldom reflect in any critical sense on the myth of American innocence. For them it is axiomatic. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and the United States is an innocent, guiltless nation.
Most Blacks, on the other hand, have recognized that myth for the lie that it is and have critiqued it unsparingly. James Baldwin offers a case in point. In his 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time, written during the American Freedom Movement and the war in Vietnam, Baldwin wrote that “my country and my countrymen have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it,” for their sense of “innocence … constitutes the crime.”
In our own time, no one has critiqued the American sense of innocence more forcefully than Ta-Nehisi Coates. “There exists all around us,” he wrote to his son, “an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.”
The relation between the way we tell American history and the myth of American innocence is symbiotic. Our refusal to tell the negative side of American history sustains our sense of innocence, while the conviction that the United States is an innocent actor in a world of evil-doers mandates that we teach our children only the good and uplifting stories about America’s past.
James Baldwin saw that point, too. “These innocent people,” he wrote, are “trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” But “these innocent people,” he continued, could not afford to grapple with the truths of their past for fear of losing “their identity” as a noble and innocent nation.
Mental health workers grasp the fact that the broken human psyche never can heal until the person in question rejects the lies one is tempted to tell about one’s self and embraces the truth instead.
Likewise, the American nation never will heal from its deep racial divide until Americans tell the truth about race, the truth about their history, and the truth about themselves — the bad along with the good — and reject the myth that the United States is a perpetually innocent nation.
Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at Pepperdine University and the author of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy the Stories that Give Us Meaning. An edited version of this column was published first in the Los Angeles Times. The content is published here with permission of the Times and the author.
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