An Open Letter to My History Professor, on the Eve of Thanksgiving

 

 

Dear Professor*,

Each year, Thanksgiving gives me a reason to reflect on history.

We, as a country, have decided that it is worthwhile to celebrate this day. We think it matters because History has some bearing on today, and that is why we teach it in school. Perhaps you think studying History matters too, and that is why you became a History professor?

 

I didn’t think so. I have long loathed History class. In high school it was one battle after another, and an endless list of the names of rich white men. I thought History itself  was boring, and couldn’t see how this could possibly matter to me. But it turns out, I was wrong about that. I changed my mind.

Now, I do believe that History matters.

 

As an adult, enrolled in college and dreaming of being a History teacher, I was so excited to take your History class.

Discussions about people and events! Learning new things, making meaning about the past with other students! That’s like my favorite thing, and I showed up ready to participate.

But you quickly killed that excitement.

 

In a class which was in majority young people who have experienced challenges with education, mostly females, mostly people of color, you systematically destroyed our inquiry and denied all conversation.

You dismissed every question that came up, showing us all with your words, body language and facial expressions that History is not ours. It is yours, a dead body of knowledge that you own and we are only allowed to absorb and repeat verbatim.

You taught us “facts” from an unexamined lens of white male supremacy, and denied even the existence of other ways of thinking.

 

You referred to the whole class as “you people”, told us that “We are ALL equal here [in USA], and cable TV makes us think we are not.”

You told us our problem is a failure to buy in, to work hard enough, to understand your reality.

You told us that the Indians would have eventually disappeared, whether or not Colonists came along, because they were “against progress.”

When a young man asked a vulnerable question, “Why do so many people in History want to hurt each other over religion?, you missed the opportunity to engage in necessary dialogue. You missed every learning opportunity, actually.

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But, Professor…..Disengaged students are not bad students.

I watched these young people have moments of fierce thoughtfulness, of hot cognition and desire to connect and think and learn.

Every single time, you brushed us all aside. You pushed us all back down, squashed  our participation and curiosity, and even more so, pushed your systemic white supremacist** version of History on us all.

 

You told us all “You’re thinking in 2018 terms, not 1600s.” And while there may be a real point about the Historical Mindset in there, the idea that there is one 1600s mindset and/or one 2018 mindset  is the most reductionist thing I’ve ever heard. You used this over and over to shut us all down, to end our inquiry, to assert your superiority.

 

You would think, perhaps, that my complaint is that I didn’t learn anything in your class. But no–I learned a LOT.

I learned that you are scared shitless of History.

 

“The historical record is forever rigged in favor of the Ruling Class, which at all times has created the vast majority of the surviving sources.”-John Tosh

 

I learned that those who write the official books and attach themselves to the One Historical Narrative are incurious, inflexible and irrelevant people who are clinging onto their mindset like barnacles, repeating the same lists of the same dudes and their unexamined accomplishments in order to uphold the myths that everything is built upon.

I learned that you believe History is battles, winners and Charters.

I learned that you don’t understand how knowledge is created or transmitted, when you told us “There’s no better way to learn than reading and writing things down. That’s the only way you have knowledge, writing things down.”

 

“We explain the world the way we think about it.”-Marcelo Gleiser

 

I learned that a class full of young adults [and me***] showed up, hungry for ideas and engagement, and we were shut down and pushed out.

I learned that when a badass young black female talks back to your narrative, you literally cannot even handle it.

I learned that you did not expect me to know anything, to calmly make clear and critical arguments, or to write down everything you said and file official complaints.

I learned that we all need to approach the historical record with a critical eye, and to apply a variety of lenses to each situation.

And I learned that to be a truly great History teacher, one needs to start with What History Is.

What does it mean and why does it matter?

History requires us to make meaning of events, to discuss what is known , what is not yet known, and what is unknowable.

 

Richard Feynman said “The statements of Science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known with different degrees of certainty.”

 

This is true of History too.

Dialogue in an academic setting can drive learning and and growth. It helps us all learn to think and explore the material, and to identify areas for more exploration. This keeps historians asking questions and doing research, growing as a field and dismantling barriers to participation and understanding.

 

“My responsibility is in including other people.”-Mae Jemison

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So on this day of thanks, I won’t wish you harm. I see that you are literally fading in front of us as we sit here in class, and I have empathy for that.

It is the vitality and passion of these students, that which you tried to suppress, that is what I am truly thankful for.

 

And I’m thankful for the people who are doing the work of setting this historical record straight.

The women and people of color who are talking back to the bullshit narratives that systemically white supremacist educators, parents, writers and other media makers have pushed on us all for way too long.

I’m thankful that we now have a huge body of work which counters the reductionist white nationalism which is the dirty, rotten, stinking root cause of the hate and inequity which infects our collective memory.

 

And I call on all of us to do the work necessary to unlearn, expand the narrative and create the dialogues we so desperately need to get free of this broken American History mythology that haunts our education system, from Kindergarten to grad school.

 

“Political catastrophe, fast-moving or slow, always begins with a lie.”–Brooke Gladstone

 

I wish you all a good day of Thanks, and I hope we can work together to heal the great wound that is our nation’s History. Telling the truth is the first step.

To those working on that, I see you. I thank you. I’m sorry for this pain.

To those denying truth, I see you too–and I want you to know that we are coming for you. We are coming for your jobs, your textbooks, your narratives and your monuments, and we are ready to build new bridges in their place.

Have a nice day,

-Traci
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*I am choosing not to name this person for 2 reasons:

  1. In this age of internet, real harm can come to people who are named, and I don’t want to contribute to that.
  2. It’s all too easy to point to an individual and place blame. Yes, this person has a responsibility for the problem. But I believe in looking at the system, and making the changes there. Nothing systemic lives and dies with one douchebag professor–let’s think bigger!

**In this case, I am defining white supremacy as a system which has power and  normalizes and centers whiteness and others and excludes all other identities, encoding this mindset into language and frameworks. While it is not exclusive of individual racism, it may exist as a system even when conscious racist acts aren’t present.

***For context, I identify as a white working-class female and a first-generation, non-traditional student.

8 thoughts on “An Open Letter to My History Professor, on the Eve of Thanksgiving

  1. I’m in the UK and an old retired white man aged 76. UK history is initially a list of Kings and Queens and what happened during their reigns ,
    When eventually parliament began to rule other famous people were placed in the history books. Why were white men the prime movers in history in the western world , we can exclude the east and China.
    Firstly the industrial revolution which started the modern world was initiated in Europe by white men . This gave white men an enormous power advantage , and the waring tribes began by fighting each other.
    The pilgrim fathers fled England because of religious persecution and settled in America they were religious English white men, and we’re followed by more and more white men who had guns and clashed with the American natives.
    Incidentally the Natives were not one huge harmonious peace loving tribe but lots of tribes guarding their own territory. The three main European white tribes that wanted to grab the new continent were English , French , Spanish ( these were somewhat darker skinned).
    Later the English settlers who were white wanted to break away from England and we had the War of independence ; white English men fighting white English men at the same time the French white men were fighting the English for territory in Canada.
    It was not to long before the new Country of America was fighting a civil war .
    Homosapiens are tribal by nature regardless of their skin colour we all originated in Africa which we left about 100,000 years ago.

  2. I don’t really understand the intent behind this comment. Are you trying to add something to the conversation? And, if so, can you please be more specific about what that is?

  3. You go girl! This high school drop-out, working class, first generation/nontraditional college graduate witnessed the same not only in history classes but literature classes (there is only one interpretation), science and social sciences. I had to take a year’s worth of Women’s History and African American history to know that they/we were present, not a gratuitous side bar in a text book. At one point, my community college had a generous offer from a local native American elder/leader to teach a course in indigenous history but the college declined because he did not have Masters degree. And don’t even get me started on Thanksgiving myths…

  4. My apologies I often fail to make myself clear. Let me simplify : it seems to me you are angry with white men and assume they are different from other people because of their behaviour. My belief is that in general ( not individually) people are essentially the same. The reason white men control the western world is because historically they developed the power to do so. Perhaps one of the worst examples of how black men can behave when they have control is that of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
    Your history teacher was blind to the equality of humans he believed that white men were entitled to rule and that non-whites were inferior . The other serious flaw in his character was his assumption that knowledge makes you superior to those who don’t know. This is very similar to the assumption that high rank makes the holder a superior person.

  5. Wow. What you got out of this is that I am angry with white men?
    It seems like you might have some preconceptions here.
    I had an experience where all of my questions and conversations were shut down and dismissed.
    Where a person in a position of power repeatedly made statements which were racist and misogynist.
    Where learning opportunities were repeatedly ignored, and I had to watch the class grow more and more disengaged.
    Where I was supposed to be in “college” and it felt like middle school.
    Where factual incorrect statements were repeatedly made.
    If you think the reason for my feelings is that I, personally, have a problem with “white men”, perhaps you don’t understand great education?
    Perhaps you don’t know that dialogue is an important part of learning and growing?
    Perhaps you have read no counter narratives?

  6. I have no higher education leaving school way back in the late fifties. I understand your experience and I do know that middle aged white men are in predominance regarding positions of power in nearly all educational establishments . In the UK we have a predominance of white men in parliament , women and ethnic minorities or poorly represented.
    I have tried to outline the reasons for this situation historically. I have found quite often those who have had a higher education ( whatever that means ) often dismiss those who have not and there is also a tendency not to suffer fools gladly.
    I know a lot about exchange of dialogue In do it all the time on the internet and have met all types and opinions. I can tell from your anger that you are upset by the experience but I also read into your replies you have made up your mind on some historical facts , but I agree discussion is the best way to resolve disagreements.

  7. It seems like you really know a lot about me.
    Amazing!
    I am impressed at how much you know about my anger.

  8. I have no axe to grind with any one , and I have found sometimes friction can be resolved and when that cannot be achieved a polite withdrawal is the best for all.

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