Our culture likes to bathe in “I have a dream,” and ignore the radical side of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march for a living wage in support of black workers at the Scripto Pen Company, Atlanta, 1964. (1964. AFL-CIO Still Images, Photographic Prints Collection, University of Maryland)

Much of what we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. today has been filtered through a lens that minimizes his work as a social activist. We see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a crusader against segregation, and as someone who spoke amazing words about the America we think exists today. We ignore the other causes for which he fought, and ultimately, died.

The Civil Rights Movement was not just about segregation. It was about police brutality. It was about white…

Life of George Washington: The Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns

The story of Harry Washington is one that reveals much about how our nation’s history is told.

You mean you haven’t heard of Harry Washington?

Well, sit back. It’s a wild ride.

Harry Washington was born in West Africa around 1740. He was captured in his early 20s, placed in the bowels of a slave ship, and endured the horrors of the Middle Passage. On the shores of the Potomac, he was purchased and enslaved by a man named Daniel Tebbs.

In 1763, Tebbs sold Harry to none other than George Washington. After working with several other enslaved people on…

Ota Benga was an African man, kept in American zoo exhibits at the turn of the century.

If you went to the Bronx Zoo in 1906, you undoubtedly would have found yourself at the exhibit of Ota Benga, a man kidnapped from his home in Africa and displayed in a cage along with an orangutan. People threw him food, taunted him; applauded when he did something they liked. Although he was only on “display” in the Bronx for twenty days, he never went back home and never saw his wife and kids again.

Ota Benga’s story is tragic. But it was not unique.

Human zoos were a thing.

Displaying human beings for curiosity's sake was nothing new…

Anti-Chinese Propaganda in the United States

Calle de los Negros was an infamous street in Los Angeles that had a history of violence, including public lynchings of Black and Mexican residents. But, by the 1870s, there was a new target: Chinese immigrants.

Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles had made Calle de los Negros their home. Not that it was a choice, it was one of the only areas in town where they were allowed to settle.

On October 24, 1871, an officer whistled for help while patrolling Calle de los Negros with a white rancher named Robert Thompson after shots rang out on the street between…

One of many heroic images of Robert E. Lee. This one by Charles C.J. Hoffbauer, 1920

History, as is taught in our country, lionizes and mythologizes Robert E. Lee. Even as a high school student in the North in the 80s, I was not immune to this. I remember being told three things about Robert E. Lee:

1) He hated slavery and had freed his slaves before the war
2) He was honorable
3) He was against secession and only reluctantly joined the Southern cause

Never, not once, was the term “traitor” ever used to describe Robert E. Lee. In my youth, Robert E. Lee was depicted as a mythical hero. Even the Dukes of Hazzard

The unpleasant aspects of our history are often told through purposeful obfuscation. Consequently, what people in this country think they know about race and slavery, in particular, are viewed through minimalization, carefully selected words that obscure the actual history, and purposeful omission of events and people.

A friend recently turned me to a book by Linda Tuhiwai Smith called Decolonizing Methods: Research and Indigenous Peoples. This book has helped me, as a history educator, to more fully understand the purpose of history; or, I should say, how history is used in society. In the book, she writes:

“We believe that…

American history is a history of paradoxes.

If you want to really get into the history of race in America, you can start with the American Revolution, the ultimate of paradoxes. Justified by the words “all men are created equal,” the revolution itself did nothing to provide that equality to Black Americans (or Natives or women, for that matter either). Textbooks proudly proclaim that 5,000 black men fought for freedom with “courage” and “loyalty.” What the textbooks don’t tell you is than many of them were promised an end to slavery, freedom for their enslaved family members and land. …

As a history teacher, these last couple of weeks have been wrought with a realization that most white people in this country do not know history. Don’t get me wrong. I have always known this. But the responses of late to the mass unrest that has occurred over the murder of George Floyd has made me realize more than ever that history has been weaponized to present a version of America that is more palatable to white people.

It is this graphic, shared all over the internet, that has almost sent me over the edge:

Image shared on social media over the last two weeks as a counter to Black Lives Matter protests.

The implication here is that…

Note: this article contains some graphic images.

Most people in the United States don’t know the true history of the United States.

And this is on purpose.

As a history teacher, I can tell you that our textbooks are not designed to teach history. No, let me rephrase that: our textbooks are not designed to teach our true history. Textbooks are written by companies to sell at a profit. So textbook companies are really careful about what they put into textbooks because they want to sell a whole lot of textbooks to Texas, for example. The Texas State Board of…

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

This picture from AP photographer Julio Cortez sums everything up with where we are as a people. The upside-down flag has historically been used to signal “distress.” And “distress” may not be a word strong enough.

For those people clutching their pearls over the destruction of property and using epitaphs such as “thugs” to describe protesters, I have one thing to say: know your history. You are echoing racist and privileged language that has been used over and over again, whenever the pain of inequality has exploded in anger and desperation. It has been used whenever violent responses to BLM…

Bruce Janu

Educator. Historian. Filmmaker. http://www.bellbookcamera.com

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