Telling the Truth About Slavery Is Not ‘Indoctrination’

Our country is made better, not worse, by young people reckoning with the full legacy of the institution.

An archival photo of an American classroom saluting the American flag
Bettmann / Getty

Last week, at the White House Conference on American History, President Donald Trump denounced the way “the left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” attacking Howard Zinn, critical race theory, and The New York Times’ 1619 Project (to which I was a contributor). The president emphasized the need for “patriotic education” in our schools, and seemed to downplay the centrality of slavery, and perhaps any sort of oppression, to America’s founding.

“Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” Trump said at the event. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

“Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, “that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right.”

Listening to Trump, one would think that a rigorous examination of slavery and its implications was a central fixture of American classrooms. Recent surveys, however, show that young people in America have enormous gaps in what they understand about the history of slavery in this country. According to a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8 percent of high-school seniors surveyed were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds of students did not know that a constitutional amendment was necessary to formally end slavery.

What fascinated me most about Trump’s speech was his choice to frame it around “indoctrination.” It was strange to realize that providing a holistic account of what slavery was, and the horror it wrought, might be understood as indoctrination—especially if the only stories one has been told about America have been cloaked in the one-dimensional mythology of exceptionalism.

“We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans,” Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction.

Du Bois was writing during a moment when the narrative of slavery as a benevolent, amicable arrangement between the enslaver and the enslaved had come to dominate America’s collective memory of that historical period. Many Americans saw slavery as an arrangement in which Black people were happy to serve the white people who owned them, and in which those who owned them treated their laborers with a paternal and generous kindness. Such a narrative was propagated by the Columbia historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, whose 1918 book, American Negro Slavery, would shape how white Americans understood the institution. “On the whole,” Phillips wrote, “the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of American negroes represented.”

As a graduate student, Phillips studied under the historian William A. Dunning, namesake of the Dunning School—which was not a physical institution, but a racist intellectual movement. The Dunning School’s legacy includes entrenching within American public consciousness the idea that, following the Civil War, Black people had proved themselves, through both elected office and suffrage, incapable of participating in democracy. As the historian Eric Foner has put it, “The traditional or Dunning School of Reconstruction was not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow System.” At the core of Phillips’s scholarship was the idea that slavery was not in fact an inhuman institution predicated on physical and psychological torture, and that its role in the growth of the American economy was minimal.

Teaching the actual history of slavery does not necessitate skewing, omitting, or lying about what happened in this country; it takes only an exploration of the primary source documents to give one a sense of what it was and the legacy that it has left.

All teachers need to do to help their students understand the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade is have them spend time with the writings of people who experienced it firsthand. “I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat,” wrote the formerly enslaved Olaudah Equiano in his 1789 autobiography. “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.”

A teacher does not need to lie about the Confederacy being founded on the principles of intergenerational torture and human bondage when the Confederates said as much  in their declarations of secession:

“The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery,” stated Louisiana.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” stated Mississippi.

“The election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions,” stated Alabama, “consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

“The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States,” stated Texas, “is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”

It wasn’t just the elected representatives of these states who felt this way. The historian James Oliver Horton found plenty of examples of Confederate soldiers saying the same. As he notes, one Southern prisoner of war told the Union soldiers standing watch, “You Yanks want us to marry our daughters to niggers.” An indigent white farmer from North Carolina said that he could not and would not stop fighting, because Lincoln’s government was “trying to force us to live as the colored race.” A Confederate artilleryman from Louisiana said that his army had to fight even against difficult odds because he would “never want to see the day when a Negro is put on an equality with a white person.”

An educator doesn’t have to make up stories about what our Founding Fathers thought of Black people, when they said it clearly themselves.

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia. “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

No teacher needs to lie about how enslavers were allowed to abuse their enslaved workers when the Virginia slave codes made clear that it was permissible under the law for a white person to murder an enslaved Black person:

“WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refreactory servants (a) resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or othe by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.”

It is not necessary to dramatize or exaggerate the power imbalance between enslavers and enslaved people—and the violence  through which such imbalance manifested itself between enslaved women and white men—when countless examples of slave narratives share stories of the sexual abuse Black women experienced at the hands of their owners. Take this 1937 account from the formerly enslaved W. L. Bost, taken as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project by a white interviewer, and transcribed in the sort of thick dialect that these writers often ascribed to their Black subjects:

Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. She know better than to not do what he say. Didn’t have much of that until the men from South Carolina come up here [to North Carolina] and settle and bring slaves. Then they take them very same children what have they own blood and make slaves out of them. If the Missus find out she raise revolution. But she hardly find out. The white men not going to tell and the nigger women were always afraid to. So they jes go on hopin’ that thing[s] won’t be that way always.

Or this excerpt from Harriet Jacobs, in her 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:

My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings.

To understand the impact and human toll of family separation, one need look no further than the ads placed in newspapers by enslaved people in the years and decades following the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery. Like this one from Philadelphia, taken out by Eliza Holmes in 1895:

INFORMATION WANTED OF my husband and son. We parted at Richmond, Va., in 1860. My son's name was Jas. Monroe Holmes; my husband's name was Frank Holmes. My son was sold in Richmond, Va. I don't know where they carried him to. My husband was not sold; I left him in Richmond, Va. and I and five children, Henry, Gabriel, Charles, Dortha and Jacob were sold to a trader who lived in Texas. I am now old, and don’t think that I shall be here long and would like to see them before I die. Any information concerning them will be thankfully received by Eliza Holmes, Flatonia, Fayette Co., Texas.

The intensity of the opposition that Trump and many others display to centering slavery, or even simply reorienting our country’s history so that slavery is no longer peripheral to the founding of the American project, stems from their understanding of the stakes of this debate. So much of the legitimacy of America’s social, economic, and political infrastructure is predicated on an ahistorical myth—one that embraces all that makes America exceptional, without reckoning with the fact that so much of what created exceptional lives for some citizens was made possible by the intergenerational oppression of millions of others. The study of slavery aptly demonstrates these contradictions and entanglements. Trump and others aligned with his message know that once people understand slavery’s entanglement in every facet of U.S. history, the legitimacy of its systems unravels—and with it, the legitimacy of those occupying the spaces of power.

If students don’t learn about the history of slavery, then they might believe that the Electoral College is a benign institution predicated on establishing democratic fairness for Americans across the country. They might grow up to believe that the enormous wealth gap between Black and white Americans is simply a result of one group working harder than another. They might think that our prison system looks the way it does because Black people are inherently more violent.

“No one can read that first thin autobiography of Frederick Douglass and have left many illusions about slavery,” Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction. “And if truth is our object, no amount of flowery romance and the personal reminiscences of its protected beneficiaries can keep the world from knowing that slavery was a cruel, dirty, costly and inexcusable anachronism, which nearly ruined the world’s greatest experiment in democracy.”

This is what Trump is afraid students will find out. But the truth is that our country is not made worse by young people reckoning fully with the legacy of slavery. Such reckoning better prepares them to make sense of how our country has come to be, and how to build systems and institutions predicated on justice rather than oppression. Nothing is more patriotic than that.