Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Revealing America's Peculiar History

If you had asked me in high school what my least favorite subject was, I would have said Spanish. But that would only have been because I was so bad at it. If we had restricted the selection to those classes where I demonstrated reasonable aptitude, I would have said American History. There was simply nothing in the disjointed presentation of names, dates, and events that seemed relevant to the life I was living. It was so boring, so lifeless, and such an exercise cliché and platitude that it's amazing that I didn't lose my mind. However, while slumped in my chair in the back of the class, I did get plenty of sleep. So, I guess it wasn't a total loss.

Over the last few days, though, this simmering bitterness has been reawakened. The catalyst for this rediscovery has been my exposure to a recently aired PBS documentary titled Slavery and the Making of America. I learned more about our Peculiar Institution during the first five minutes of the documentary than I did in all my years of school. And when you consider that slavery was the single most important socioeconomic institution in the history of our nation, you can see how worthless my history education was.

Slavery isn't a footnote in our history. It wasn't a quaint tradition utilized by a handful of Southern plantations. Rather, it was an absolutely critical component of the birth of the American nation. The economies of the early settlements (in the North as well as in the South) depended upon the low-cost labor provided by slavery. Our fortunes during the American Revolution were nearly turned by slavery's existence, as offers of freedom convinced many slaves to join the British against the American patriots. It fueled the southern agricultural juggernaut, sustaining an otherwise uncompetitive economy. It was the single most controversial political issue from the advent of independence through the conclusion of the Civil War. And the consequences of slavery reverberate through history, affecting the lives we live even today.

In short, one cannot even begin to understand who we are without facing this shadow from our past.

Over the next few days, I'm going to attempt to remedy this deficiency. I haven't planned this out entirely, so I don't know how many posts this will actually generate. But, I have a few ideas that I want to explore with respect to both history education in general and slavery in specific. Hopefully, I'll be able to do it justice.

Stay tuned.

Proceed to A Downward Progression.

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