Better Stories, Better Selves

U.S. Army troops pose for a photograph in front of a mass burial pit, Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

As did millions, I watched in horror the killing of George Floyd by an expressionless Minneapolis cop named Derek Chauvin. Then, with breath out of turn, I watched in despair as a militarized police force, stretching from NYC to L.A., unleashed a storm of rubber bullets, batons, and chemical weapons against my fellow Americans for daring to exercise their first amendment rights of speech and assembly. I watched in disgust as a President who crowed about ‘dominating,’ disappeared into a White House bunker to fiddle while the country burned. As I write today, that same president brazenly risks public health, of both body and soul, to hold a rally with his overwhelmingly white base, in the very town, Tulsa, Oklahoma, remembered for one of the worst episodes of white racial violence in the country’s history.

To make sense of the whole sad scene, I could only conclude that the big story we tell about ourselves as a country has made us sick.

I have grown convinced of this after 30-plus years of teaching U.S. History. No matter how I’ve tried to populate that history with the truths of social justice, of America’s failed promises and prejudicial treatment of Black people, Native American people, Latino people, immigrants, workers, and women, I have rarely dented the hard outer shell of the ‘American Progress story,’ colored as it is by a story of white heroes, white triumphs, and white nationalism, just as it was originally designed to be in the traditional curriculum model. No matter how direct and seemingly irrefutable was the evidence I presented of the corrupt and violent betrayals of justice in our past, too many students, of all colors, would simply fall back on the brainwashing of that well worn catechism drilled into us as kids, the ‘progress story,’ and that pleasant narcotic of America as the “land of the free.” Like a muscle reflex, the student essays would conclude with a variation on the refrain that, despite some ‘bumps in the road,’ America’s history was now going in the right direction, and trending toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Want an example? In the U.S. History survey it is customary to teach a section on “Westward Expansion.” We study the decades-long military campaign from the 1860s-1890s, by U.S. military forces to destroy Native American independence, and thereby remove the ‘obstacles’ to white expansion. This expansion often proceeded through the deliberate killing of native women and children, in places spread across the West from the Washita River of Oklahoma to the Tule Lake of California, from Sand Creek, Colorado to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Here is a sobering toll of destruction that students often lament for its cruelty and barbarism. Yet, pointedly, many nevertheless blithely accept it, for without it, they write, “we wouldn’t be the country we are today.”

The country we are today. 

Let’s take a closer look at just one event drawn from that self-congratulatory epoch celebrated in American popular culture as ‘How the West Was Won.’ A few days after Christmas, 1890, on the frozen snow-swept plains of South Dakota, near a place called Wounded Knee Creek, U.S. Army troops took aim with powerful wheel-mounted rifle cannons, called Hotchkiss mountain guns. The Army had first acquired the guns years earlier after its famous defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a defeat brought on when the commander of the 7th U.S. Army cavalry, George Armstrong Custer mistakenly assumed he would be firing on mostly women, children, and old people. A fatal mistake. Custer’s forces were met instead by an angry hornet’s nest of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters. Now, in 1890, Custer’s old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, looked forward to payback, ready to complete the work of killing old people, women, and children begun years earlier. The gleaming, wheel-mounted Hotchkiss guns they now readied were purchased by the Army from a French firearms company, founded by an expat American named Benjamin Hotchkiss. In the Army’s 1878 ordinance report, the guns were deemed well-suited for “efficient service on the frontier,” capable of firing a two pound shell accurate up to 1500 meters. They were purchased, in other words, specifically to target non-moving targets, like the old and infirm, women, and children, not the swift riding fighters.

At Wounded Knee, the Hotchkiss guns were positioned by the soldiers of the 7th at much closer range than the 1500 meters promised, really no more than a couple of acres of frozen ground. They proved lethal, just as advertised. Soldiers opened fire and within minutes had torn open and laid waste to some 200 native Lakota women and children, whom they’d ordered to come out from hiding, under the pretense of being taken into custody. When the killing stopped and the acrid air of burned gunpowder dissipated, the soldiers dug a mass grave into which they later flung the frozen bodies, entombing them in the frozen earth. 

Within 18 months of the Wounded Knee massacre, a hired police force of Pinkerton ‘detectives’ and Pennsylvania state militia opened fire on and bayoneted striking workers at the Homestead steel works in Pittsburgh, many of whom were immigrants, killing seven workers. The steelworkers were fighting wage cuts, long hours and dangerous conditions, and efforts by management to break their union.

Just the price of doing business for ‘being the country we are today.’ The country of George Floyd, a militarized police force, and Donald Trump and the Tulsa rally.

It is not the students who are really at fault here, it is the story itself that we tell wrapped in the conceits of white nationalism. The facts of Wounded Knee are not really in dispute, and the massacre was really just the culminating event in a long train of crimes committed against native people by U.S. armed forces in the name of American national ‘progress.’ And other domestic conflicts like the Homestead Strike, on different ground with different people, immigrants and workers, would repeat dozens of times in the coming decades in various places and in various industries – but always under the same guise: denial of the workers’ right to protect themselves against iron fisted management and hired guns, a denial justified in the name of ‘progress.’

Yet, these days we cram these contrary facts of American history into the small pocket drawers of semi-apology, of “senseless tragedy” or “unavoidable conflict,” where they remain just out of sight of the main narrative presented in the much larger roll top desk of “American Progress.” What chance do those aggrieved facts really have of teaching us anything about ourselves and the gross injustices in our own time when they are papered over by the belated semi-apologies and celebrated proclamations of liberty and progress?

Does a national story, established and built on the twin premises of progress and white racial supremacy, really allow for that?

Society tends to see education as transactional – give something, get something. We should see education as transformational – a fundamental transformation of our selves and our world.

And we should insist that the histories we learn, speak to the needs of the living and to the demands of equity and justice for those living in the present, in the history of now.

Instead of the stories that keep us sick, we must privilege the stories that make us well. And that means more voices and more stories drawn from those pocket drawers, and brought to our more spacious and reconstructed center desk, a center desk freed of the distortions of white nationalism. Those stories must be told in the context of broader timelines, a much-wider geography of the Americas, and in service of the facts of widely diverse people, and not in the service of some imagined racially-narrated national progress. Thus, BIPOC could be freed from the stories of perpetual oppression in the national frame, because no longer would those stories need be fitted into the oppresssive frame of triumphal national progress. And those millions of diverse peoples otherwise pinned down in the plains, in the fields, and on the streets by those narratives, will be likewise freed from those captive stories. 

Put simply, we need truer, more inclusive histories freed from the burdens of white nationalism. We need better stories, because we need better, healthier, freer selves.

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